Chapter 73: Dangling Conversation

Taylor

It was close to six o’clock the next day when Alley and I pulled up to my parents’ house. I’d called my parents early in the afternoon, casually asking what they were doing for dinner, and I’d gotten an instant, enthusiastic invitation from my mother, which I took as a good sign. Even better, she’d informed me that it would just be her and Dad there for the evening – by some stroke of luck, all of my siblings had other plans or were staying over with friends. I’d told Alley that it was further proof that today had to be the day – like it was meant to be, which she had responded to with a set of rolled eyes. Nevertheless, she’d agreed, and so we spent the vast majority of our day practicing, per Louise’s suggestions – thinking up the best way to spill the news (sit down at the table and tell them together), the possible protests they would throw back at us (“You’re too young!”), sufficient answers to those protests (“We’re older than you were when you got married.”), and all the general innumerable reasons why we should tie the knot. By the time we’d started getting ready to come over, we’d both felt oddly confident and reassured, but I had my reservations about how long that would last.

I parked the Explorer, staring up at the faded red brick. “Well,” I said. “You ready?”

She sighed, nervously twisting her hands in her lap. “Yes and no.”

I nodded. “Same here… come on.” We both slid out of the car and began walking towards the house. I reached out and grabbed her hand, squeezing it for reassurance.

“I think this thing is burning a hole in my neck,” Alley whispered. She looked up at me worriedly. “Can you tell it’s there?”

I glanced down at her throat. In trying to figure out where exactly to hide the ring until we informed everyone, we’d run into a problem. We’d both agreed that it needed to be shown – for proof, at the very least, as Isaac had put it, but the question of how and when to show it was much harder to decide. We’d debated on which of us should keep it, whether it should be in the box or not, or whether she should simply go ahead and wear it. In the end, we’d gone for the necklace trick again – I’d strung it on one of my leather cords and Alley wore it around her neck, tucking the necklace under her collar for the time being. That way, it was hidden until we needed it.

“No, I can’t tell,” I said, studying the pale skin above that collar intently. God, she had such a sexy neck... slim and delicate and kissable…

“Taylor, watch out for the--”

Too late. “Wha--” I grunted as I tripped over a garden hose that Dad had thoughtfully left lying out in the yard and went sprawling into the ground, rolling a little to break my fall. Alley clapped her hands over her mouth, giggling.

“Jesus, Taylor… I think you’re worse off than I am…”

“Shut up and give me a hand.” I grabbed her outstretched palm when she offered it, hoisting myself back to my feet. I dusted off my jeans and shirt, scowling at the bits of grass that were stuck to it. So much for looking presentable and mature. Sort of hard to argue such a serious matter when you had grass stains on your ass... “You’re rubbing off on me in every way, you know that? Including clumsiness…”

Alley narrowed her eyes. “You had plenty of that when you came to me, so don’t even try to use it as an excuse…”

That was actually true, but I decided not to dignify it with a response. “Come on,” I said firmly. “Let’s go in.”

We stepped over a small clutter of toys that had strayed from Zoe’s room and entered the door into the garage. One half of the room housed my mother’s Lexus, the other half was filled with an assortment of Dad’s junk – dusty old furniture, various power tools, plywood boards, random car accessories. It was all stuff Dad claimed he needed for whatever reason, although I knew the mess drove my mother mad. She was a neat, tidy person, a characteristic that Alley felt I had definitely inherited.

“Is your dad building something?” Alley asked, eyeing the piles of wood.

“No,” I sighed. “Although if you ask, he’ll say ‘Yes.’ He’s been ‘building’ stuff for as long as I can remember… though strangely, I can’t ever recall seeing a finished product…”

Alley laughed. “Well, give him credit for trying, I suppose.”

“Yeah, I guess.” We walked through the garage, reaching the entrance to the house. I hesitated before gripping the doorknob. “Alley, let me just say this before we go in… They’re not talking me out of it.” I gave her a pointed look. “And don’t let them talk you out of it, either…”

She threw back her shoulders, sucking in a deep breath as she braced herself. “I won’t,” she said. She forced a smile on her face. “Well?”

I gave her a nod, pushing the door open and leading her into the house. Mom’s cooking was already well under way, I could tell – the smells wafting towards us as we entered were heavenly, a mixture of spices and grease. I inhaled deeply – homemade fried chicken, one of my all-time favorite recipes. I leaned over to tell this to Alley, but I was interrupted.

“Oh! I thought I heard the door. Come in, come in…” Mom appeared in the foyer, her hands and clothes dusted with flour. “Your father just ran to the store for me – I ran out of oregano right in the middle of making the batter! But everything else is ready, and it won’t take but about ten minutes to finish the chicken when he gets back.” She smiled warmly at us. “So how are you?”

“Great!” I replied enthusiastically. “And starving…”

“Well, there’s plenty to go around, since Jess and the younger ones are gone for the time being. I have to go pick up Mackenzie later, but the girls are all staying with friends.” She led us back into the kitchen, talking over her shoulder. “I’d forgotten what it’s like to have the house to myself!”

“I guess that is pretty rare,” Alley said. “I can’t imagine always being surrounded…”

“It is,” Mom agreed. “But you sort of miss it, when they’re gone.” She walked back over to the counter, where a large array of ingredients was lined up – flour, spices, messy bowls, eggs, and chicken breasts and drumsticks, all waiting patiently for Dad to return with the missing ingredient. She beckoned to the bar. “Have a seat.”

Alley immediately obeyed, perching on one of the bar stools. So far, she appeared to be holding up pretty well – outwardly, she didn’t appear nervous or suspicious, although if you looked carefully in her eyes, you could see the apprehension there. But it was a pretty good act, all things considered. She glanced over, offering me a crooked, shy smile, and I winked.

“What do you want to drink?” I asked her. I grinned. “The usual? Dry martini?”

“Of course, extra dry. With two olives…” She rolled her eyes. “Ummm… Just a Coke, I guess…” I nodded, heading to the refrigerator.

“So, Alley,” Mom said, leaning against the counter. “How has Tulsa treated you since you were here the other night? Has Taylor given you the grand tour?”

“A little,” Alley said. “He actually showed me your old house yesterday…”

“She was shocked at how small it was,” I said, looking over my shoulder as I dug through the stash of cans in the fridge. “I told her it was just something you get used to…”

Mom laughed. “I guess it does seem tiny, compared to where we are now. When I go back and look at the bedrooms, though, I wonder how in the world we managed…”

“I haven’t seen the inside yet,” Alley said. “We just drove by…”

“Oh, Taylor, you have to take her inside.” As I fished two Cokes out of the fridge, I turned around, noticing Mom’s playful smile. She was definitely in a good mood, which boosted my confidence about the whole situation. Better to break it to her while she was more receptive and open. “You don’t get the full effect until you see it up close and personal.”

I laughed. “I know. I just didn’t have the key with me, or I would have.” I smiled at Alley. “We’ve got plenty of time, anyway.” I cracked open my can and took a long gulp of soda. The fizzy liquid burned my throat on the way down, and I nearly choked. Alley bit her lip, stifling a giggle. I recovered and walked towards Mom, peering behind her. “So, what else are you making?”

“Lots of fattening stuff.” Mom smiled broadly. “Fried potatoes, cole slaw, a little homemade macaroni and cheese…”

Alley perked up. “Macaroni?” she asked. “I love macaroni and cheese… though I always had Velveeta, not homemade.” She grinned.

“Obviously,” I said. “It’s practically all you ever lived on before I--” I halted before I accidentally said the rest of that sentence out loud – before I lived with you. No, that wouldn’t work… it sounded a little ‘off’. I quickly readjusted that statement. “Before I stayed with you this summer,” I finished. Alley’s eyebrow rose, having noticed my near-slip-up.

“Yeah, I’m not much of a cook,” she said cheerfully, continuing with the conversation. “Unfortunately…”

“Understatement,” I murmured. “Mom, she considers Ramen Noodles and grilled cheese to be fine cuisine… I’ve tried to teach her, but she’s too stubborn…” Alley protested loudly, blushing, but Mom just smiled.

“It took you awhile to learn to cook, Taylor,” Mom reminded me. “And a lot of patience on my part…”

“Nah, I was a natural.” I set Alley’s can down in front her and she picked it up, cracking open the top. “I was cooking for myself when I was eight years old…”

“I don’t think peanut butter and jelly sandwiches is considered ‘cooking’, dear,” Mom said with a laugh. “And it seems I remember you setting off the smoke detector a time or two during some of your experiments…”

“Oh? Yeah, he did that a few times at my place, too,” Alley said sweetly. “Woke Louise up once from a nap, actually – remember, Taylor? I thought she was going to throttle you…”

Mom laughed, and I rolled my eyes. “You’d think she’d be used to it, living with you,” I grumbled. “Oh, wait – I guess it’s hard to totally burn something in the microwave…”

Alley reached over and pinched my arm, making me yelp. “Smart-aleck,” she said, biting back a grin. I stifled a snort, noting the way she’d censored herself – I was sure she’d been dying to say ‘smartass’.  She stood up from the stool, stretching her arms over her head. “I’m going to the restroom… be right back.” With that, she trotted down the hall, her loopy curls bouncing with each step. I watched her leave, unable to stop my lips from turning up.

“Look at you,” Mom said, glancing over at me with a smile. “Totally moonstruck…”

I felt myself blushing. “What?” I asked defensively. “Me? You once told me that you used to forget your own name whenever Dad walked into the room…”

Mom threw her head back and laughed. “Oh, to be that young again,” she said. “Young and in love.”

“Are you saying being old and in love is no fun?” I teased her. She reached over and swatted me for the crack on her age.

“Of course not. It’s better in many ways. In most ways, really.” She leaned against the counter, fixing her gaze at the hallway where Alley had retreated. “She thinks the world of you, I can tell,” Mom said.

I was silent for a moment, absorbing that statement. Feeling a small boost from the sincerity of it. “I think the world of her,” I replied in a quiet, serious tone.

“I can tell that, too.” She picked up the spatula, reaching to stir the pan full of potatoes. I watched her intently, still gauging her mood. She looked up, noticing that I was studying her.

“What are you thinking?” I asked bluntly. “You look like you want to say something…”

She shook her head slightly and smiled again, the wispy blond hairs from her ponytail fluttering as she moved. “Just about how things turned out. How much you’ve changed; grown up… it doesn’t seem like it’s been 21 years…”

Uh-oh. Mom was getting that wistful, contemplative-mother look on her face as she reminisced about my childhood, and Alley’s line about ‘stealing her baby son away’ suddenly popped into my head. I kept my tone light and teasing, hoping to keep Mom on more cheerful conversation. “You’re not gonna get all mushy and teary-eyed on me, are you?” I asked. “Besides, you’re not out of the woods yet – you’ve still got plenty of kids to raise…”

“And it doesn’t get any easier with each one, as you might expect. Although the time does seem to fly… I can’t believe Zoe is already six…”

“Just think, in no time she’ll be a teenager,” I said. “Talking on the phone non-stop, putting on too much makeup and fighting off all the boys…”

Mom shook her head. “Let’s not rush her,” she said with a chuckle. “Let me enjoy the innocent years while I can…” She wagged her finger at me. “One of these days when you have kids of your own, you’ll understand.”

I felt my cheeks heat up, as if she somehow knew what I was thinking – that I had actually imagined those future kids of my own only last night... “I guess you’re right,” I finally said.

The door down the hall opened, and Alley appeared again, giving me a goofy grin as she slid into the stool next to me. From the corner of my eye, I noticed Mom look up from the pan and smile at the two of us. I wondered what was going through her mind – she’d told me before we’d left the last time that she thought Alley and I were cute together, and I wondered if she was thinking it again while observing the two of us side by side. I looked over at Alley, mentally comparing her lighter skin and blonder hair with my slightly darker coloring. Mom turned her back to rummage through the refrigerator, and I leaned over to pinch Alley’s arm.

“I’ve got a good feeling about this,” I whispered in her ear. “She’s in a great mood…”

“Probably not for long,” Alley muttered back.

I ignored that. “We’ll tell them after we eat, okay?”

“God help us…”

I smiled in spite of myself and gently kissed her temple. “He will,” I murmured. “You know that…” I heard the rumble of an engine, and I sat back up, craning my neck to look out the window. “Dad’s home,” I said in a louder, normal voice, alerting my mother. “Finally. I’m starving…”

*****

About an hour later, we were sipping on cups of hot coffee as we finished off dessert – a rich, creamy German Chocolate cake, courtesy of Mom. I felt content; relaxed, which I thought was unusual, considering the uncomfortable, nerve-wracking conversation we would be having shortly. Mom stood up, gathering the empty plates from the table to take to the sink. Alley, meanwhile, licked one last swipe of frosting off her fork, sighing happily. I couldn’t help but smile – figures. Cake of any variety was tops on Alley’s list of foods that made her happy. She set her fork down and looked over at me, grinning. There was a small streak of chocolate just under her lip, no doubt put there by her eager eating etiquette, and I chuckled.

“You’ve got some chocolate on your chin, hon,” I murmured. I carefully wiped the smear off her skin with my thumb, and she blushed a little, throwing a furtive glance over to Dad, who was watching with mild amusement.

“Thanks…” She rubbed her chin hard, trying to remove all traces of the cake. “I’m so messy…”

“That you are,” I replied cheerfully. “But I love you anyway.” The words slipped out before I realized how banal they must have sounded. God, Alley was right, I was a cornball… strange what love could do to a man.

Thankfully, sort of, my father didn’t comment on that, but Alley flushed even harder and bit her lip, unsure of whether she should respond to my declaration. Mom swept back into the room, surveying the near-empty table, and I licked my lips, thinking. Well… dinner’s over… we’re all here… should we…?

“Alley,” Mom said, interrupting my train of thought.  Her eyes sparkled with mischief. “Come with me. I have some things to show you…”

Alley’s eyes widened with delight when she understood what my mother was referring to. I groaned, realizing the ‘talk’ would have to wait a bit longer. And here I’d thought Mom was just joking around when she’d promised to show Alley some of my less proud childhood moments. “Mom…” I said in halfhearted protest.

“Oh, perfect,” Alley said, leaping out of her chair. No surprise there. I was sure she was looking for any excuse to procrastinate. “I could use a good laugh…” She gave me a huge, silly grin as she bounded behind Mom, ready to troupe after her to look at embarrassing naked baby pictures or whatever the hell my mother had scrounged up to show her.

“We’ll be back,” Mom said, winking. I watched, chagrined, as the two women left the room. Dad chuckled, grabbing Alley’s empty plate off the table. I stood up and followed him into the kitchen.

“Ashamed of your past, Taylor?” he asked, rinsing the dish off in the sink. I climbed onto a barstool, taking a long drink of my Coke and setting it down on the counter with a loud clack.

Ashamed? No… Mortified? Perhaps… “Jeez, she could have waited a few weeks before bringing out the humiliation,” I grumbled.

“You know your mother,” he replied with a laugh. “Any excuse to show her sons at their most clueless…”

“I guess.” I lifted my glass off the counter, staring at the wet circle it left behind. “Well…” I said, carefully choosing my words. “That’s a good thing, though… it shows she really likes Alley…”

“She does,” Dad agreed amiably. I waited for him to elaborate, but when he didn’t take the bait like I thought he would, I prodded.

“Yeah… they seem to have hit it off pretty well, haven’t they?” I set the glass down and studied Dad, gauging his reactions to my mild hints.

Dad smiled. “They have.”

“So… what about you? Do you like her, too?”

“She seems like a sweet girl,” Dad said. I nearly snorted – the ‘sweet’ side of Alley was generally reserved for special occasions or when she wanted something from me, though it did make an unscheduled appearance from time to time, as it had yesterday. The sassy side, however, was usually in full swing, at least in my company. “Good sense of humor,” he continued, and I nodded, chuckling. He glanced at me from the corner of his eye, a hint of a smile on his face. “And, dare I say, an actual brain underneath all that blonde…”

I laughed out loud. “Well, you know,” I remarked, “I finally figured out what was really important…”

“I think you did.” He turned back to the sink and toweled off a frying pan, oblivious to my inner turmoil. “It happens, as you get older… we knew you’d figure it out for yourself eventually.”

“Yeah, and she’s… she’s pretty important to me…” The words eked out before I could stop and think about what I was saying. About what I was doing. Hadn’t I told Alley we would do this together? But it was like once I started the ball rolling, I couldn’t quite slow down…

Dad glanced over his shoulder. “We can tell.”

“Yeah…” I let my eyes wander around the room as I rambled on, suddenly getting an idea. “Dad… do you remember what you told me about the first time you, um, kissed Mom?” I felt my face flush as I broached the subject.  Dad raised an eyebrow – probably because it was odd to him to be having this sort of conversation with his second-oldest son rather than the oldest. Isaac was infamous for requesting sappy relationship advice from anyone who would dispense it, including our parents. I, on the other hand, had generally kept that sort of thing to myself and shied away from the topic. Until now…

“Hmmm,” he murmured. “I think so… but refresh my memory?”

“You said… well, you said that the first time you kissed Mom, you knew that she was the one for you…” I had to look down, and picked at the dry skin around my fingernails. “Remember?”

“Right,” Dad said. “I believe I remember relating that story a time or two.” He smiled at me, though I could see that it was a little wary; suspicious. “Though I never actually thought you were listening, Taylor.”

A time or two? Try a time or fifty… “Well, I wasn’t,” I admitted. “Not really. But I… I internalized it, I guess… I mean, I remembered what you said, later on, and it got me thinking… I always used to think it was so corny, you know, but then…” Dad was starting to look confused at my rambling train of thought, and I struggled to make my point. Wait. What was my point, again? “With Alley, I… I felt that.”

“Oh, really?” Dad said. “Taylor, is that you?” His tone was light, teasing. “What’s bringing out this sudden romantic in you? That’s usually your brother’s forte…”

I fidgeted in the chair. Finally, I stopped picking at my nails and looked up at him. “It’s just that… I—I think this is the one, Dad. Seriously.”

“You think so?” He cocked his head to the side, appraising me, as if evaluating my sincerity on the matter.

“Yeah… I do.” I licked my lips nervously, unable to stop the next words that tumbled from my mouth. “Dad… I want to marry her.”

At this statement, my father visibly started. “What?”

“I… I could marry her. I want to marry her…”

Dad set down the dish, turning to give me his full attention. He nodded in that way that parents do when they’re unsure of how to respond without seeming overly rude. “I see… well, you’re still young, Taylor, you’ve got plenty of time to think about it.”

“I don’t need any more time,” I found myself saying, and I inwardly cringed, knowing that I sounded immature and stubborn. “I’m ready.”

Dad raised an eyebrow, looking for a moment that he might laugh. I realized, then, that he was not taking me very seriously. “Oh, Taylor. Don’t be in such a rush. Marriage is a big step. Your mother and I dated for years before we got engaged, and even then we weren’t completely prepared for it.”

No one can ever be completely prepared for it,” I said quietly. “But sometimes, you have to do what feels right.”

Dad met my eyes and didn’t say anything for a long moment. Finally, he spoke. “Taylor,” he said. “Is there something you’re trying to tell me?”

I stared down at the counter, gathering up my courage. “Yeah,” I said, my voice barely above a whisper. “There is.” I looked back up, suddenly feeling very small and childish under his penetrating gaze. “I’ve… well… I think we should get married.”

Dad’s eyebrows shot up. “Come again?”

“I think we’re ready to get married…”

“Taylor,” he said. “What? Are you serious?”

“Completely,” I said quietly.

He sighed, taking off his glasses and rubbing the lenses with the hem of his shirt. “Don’t you think that’s a little rash, son? You’ve only been dating her for--”

“—for two months, officially, I know,” I said irritably. God, if we were going to have an Isaac-style debate over this, I might just lose my mind. “But… it’s long enough. Long enough for me to know.”

“You’re very young, Taylor. You have your whole life ahead of you. Marriage can wait.”

“Dad, you don’t get it,” I said softly. “We’ve already made up our minds…”

“We?” he repeated. His eyes widened a little as he comprehended what that meant. I realized I hadn’t explicitly come clean with him yet. “Taylor, have you…”

“I’ve already asked,” I blurted out, throwing a furtive glance behind me, as if I thought Alley and Mom would hear from upstairs. I rushed on, wondering how in the world I’d ended up at this point. “I bought a ring, got permission from her parents, and asked her…” I managed a weak smile. “They approved… and she said yes…”

“Taylor,” he repeated my name, incredulous, and then paused, as if he couldn’t even come up with an appropriate response to that. I wasn’t sure what to think – he wasn’t yelling (yet), which was a positive sign, but judging by the expression on his face, he was not what I would call thrilled by the news. Obviously, we would not be calling the caterer just yet… He locked eyes with me. “Are you serious?” he asked again.

I nodded slowly. “Yeah…”

He leaned forward over the table, still staring down at me. “Taylor, I’m going to ask you something, and I want you to be completely honest,” he said evenly. “Is Alley pregnant?”

“What?!” I felt my jaw drop, almost like a reflex. Wow, in all the preparation we’d done, the fact that others might think our eagerness to get married was due to pregnancy had somehow not occurred to us. Alley, pregnant? Not that I knew of… we’d taken several precautions against that happening, though Alley had nervously pointed out on more than one occasion that I probably had the virility of a world champion stud horse, given my family history. “No, Dad,” I finally managed to reply. “She’s not pregnant.”

He crossed his arms, his face set and severe. “Are you lying to me?”

“No,” I said, exasperated. “I’m not lying to you! Why would I lie about something like that, anyway? When you would be able to see for yourself in a few months? I mean, it’s not exactly something you can hide…”

“When you’ve been around as long as I have, son, you’ve seen and heard everything. And I don’t know many young men who have dated their girlfriends for such a short period of time… and then immediately become engaged, without an underlying reason for that rush.”

“I didn’t say we wanted to get married next week or anything crazy like that,” I pointed out, realizing that I was essentially going to be repeating my debate with Isaac here. Well, I should have known that. Isaac was like a little Walker Hanson Mini-Me when it came to this sort of thing. “We haven’t even set a date yet. So it’s not like we’re totally rushing into it…”

He sighed heavily. “Taylor--”

“Taylor!” I heard my name again, but this time, it was in a higher-pitched, loud, laughing tone, bubbling over with enthusiasm. There was a series of stomps coming from the back of the house as Alley dashed downstairs, her lighthearted giggling filling the lower level. “You never told me you were such a fabulous dancer!” she exclaimed with sweet sarcasm as she bounded into the kitchen, her face flushed from laughter. “You and Isaac and Zac, your own little dance troupe! You’ll have to show me one of those smooth moves sometimes…”

In between her fingers, she clutched a group of pictures, and she walked towards me, hands outstretched, a childish grin on her face. I sustained a groan – it looked like Mom had brought out the motherload, literally. Videos and pictures? What next, a play-by-play account of the time I’d been caught eating dirt from the garden outside? “And these here are just priceless,” Alley continued, waving the tiny rectangles around.

I nervously glanced over at Dad, who looked like he was still trying to absorb what I’d just told him – the knowledge that he wasn’t looking at his son’s girlfriend, but his future daughter-in-law. In his eyes, I was sure, he was viewing a lovable but silly girl and his well-meaning but immature son, both far too young to be climbing into the grown-up world of marriage and responsibility. I slowly took the pictures from Alley’s hand, checking to see what mortifying, immortalized moment Mom had chosen to show her, and silently envied her whimsical obliviousness.

The pictures were from Halloween when I was four or five – Isaac was mugging away in one of his typical, safe, boring costumes: a tan, fringed shirt, jeans, and plain cowboy boots and hat. I, however, had insisted on being Michelangelo from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that year. In the photo, I was striking a tough-guy pose in my turtle suit with a pair of homemade nun chucks, scowling at the camera for effect. Of course, it’s pretty hard to look tough when you’re dressed all in green with an orange bandanna tied around your head and a pair of tin-foil weapons in your hands…

“I remember that year,” I said, distracted. “Isaac got more Reese Cups than me and I cried until he gave me some of his.”

Alley guffawed. “Awww, poor Taylor.” She looked to my dad, her eyes dancing, mercifully innocent of the conversation she’d just interrupted. In fact, judging by her giddiness at finally getting to make fun of my childhood, she’d somehow forgotten our entire reason for coming over tonight. “So how were his ninja moves? As good as his dancing?”

Dad managed a mild, forced smile. “Better, if memory serves,” he said calmly. Alley grinned, taking the pictures from me.

“Okay, well, I’m going back upstairs… your mom is looking for some pictures from Isaac’s tenth birthday… apparently there’s some interesting ones involving wrestling and double-fudge brownies that I should see.” She started to turn and flit back up the stairs, but I reached out and grabbed her arm.

“Alley…” I said softly. She turned, giving me a questioning look, the red flush of laughter slowly fading from her face. I held on to her wrist, lightly caressing her skin with my thumbs. I darted my eyes over to my father, briefly, before turning back to hers. We stared at each other for a minute, and comprehension finally dawned in her eyes. I gave an imperceptible nod. “…I told him.”

Her jaw dropped and she blinked several times in rapid succession. “Oh,” she whispered. She looked over at Dad nervously, but didn’t say anything else.

“So,” I said finally. “What now?”

“Taylor, go get your mother,” Dad said, his voice even and somber. “We need to talk.”

*****

Growing up, I was never the one in trouble. I’d heard horror stories from friends about being lectured by their parents, or getting grounded, or having the phone or car or whatever essential teenage social device taken away from them for weeks at a time. I’d witnessed Isaac getting yelled at once or twice – usually for reckless horseplay, like the time he was wrestling with a friend and managed to send Mom’s favorite lamp crashing into a window. And Zac had suffered through a few memorable ‘discussions’ with Mom, Dad, and even Ashley, generally dealing with his tendency to say inappropriate things at inappropriate times. But me? No. It wasn’t that I’d been a model child – far from it – but I’d always managed to escape the uncomfortable confrontations. Mainly because, as Zac had put it, I was good at hiding things. Good at keeping secrets and staying just under the radar, good at sneaking out, good at holding in most of my less kosher thoughts. With the exception of my obvious lack of taste in women, to my parents, I’d been barely any trouble at all, because they were blissfully unaware of some of my less savory life experiences. In fact, I’d never caused them any real grief, until I fell from that rock wall…

Except now, I couldn’t hide. I was announcing to everyone that I was about to do something that, in their eyes, was brash, ludicrous, and a massive mistake, but I had no excuses or alibis or even convincing reasons backing it up. It felt strange, being this open with them. Being the one with my head on the chopping block, to put it one way…

Alley sat next to me at the kitchen table, her hands tightly folded in her lap, her back ramrod straight against the chair. Mom and Dad sat across from us, similarly tense, though really, the serenity of everyone involved was shocking, in my opinion. There had been no tears, no shouting or cursing, none of the immature shit that had transpired between me and my brothers the night before. And, thankfully, none of the ‘freaking out’ that Zac had gleefully indicated might happen. After several excruciating, mortifying minutes of further convincing them both that no, Alley was not pregnant (“A baby is not a reason to rush into marriage, you know,” had been one of Mom’s shocking replies), they finally believed us and started right in with other disputes. And so, we’d been ‘discussing’ (a relative term) mine and Alley’s desire for marriage for what felt like about three centuries, and thus far, both sides refused to budge. Our conversation began to take on a repetitive pattern: Dad would argue a reason against it, Mom would quietly agree with him and offer a thought of her own, I would throw back a passionate reason for it, and Alley would silently side with me, nodding her agreement. And then DC al coda. Over and over. It was exhausting…

“Taylor, I don’t want you to misunderstand.” Dad seemed to feel that I wasn’t ‘getting’ what he was saying, which was entirely untrue. I knew and understood perfectly well why he thought we should wait – it was just that I vehemently disagreed with it. “We’re not disapproving of this relationship at all. But there’s a huge difference between dating and marriage. We know you stayed with her for two months, but still… that was just a visit. Not to mention there’s a huge difference even between living together and marriage. It’s not something you can take lightly.”

“And you’re still so young,” Mom added gently. Right, how many times had we heard that one so far? I was running out of fingers to count it on… besides the fact that, of course, they themselves were being hypocrites… “What’s the rush? Just enjoy the freedom you have with each other now.”

“You keep saying we’re so young,” I replied, “but you all got married when you were nineteen.” Right, at least we were a little older than that…

Mom and Dad exchanged glances. “Times were different then,” Dad said. “And your mother and I had dated for years.”

Teenage years!” I exclaimed. “And you dated for years, yeah, but like I said, you’ve both told me a thousand times that you knew the first time you kissed. That you knew. I never believed that was possible until it happened to me… I just…” I looked over at Alley, who was studying me with a wide-eyed, earnest expression. Come on, Alley… help me out here… say something, anything… “Like you all, we know.”

My parents looked uncomfortable at that – I bet they never thought that they’d have their sweet, romantic first-kiss story turned against them in this way. They exchanged a glance, remaining silent for a moment, until Mom finally spoke.

“Okay,” she said, her voice gentle. “We don’t doubt that you care very much about each other – it’s pretty evident in the way you act. But,” she continued, “in this day and age, there’s no reason to rush into marriage, particularly not in your situation.”

I rubbed the tense spot in the center of my forehead. ‘In my situation.’ God, I hated that phrase. As if I was some sort of freak of nature; abnormal. “I don’t think we’re ‘rushing.’ We were thinking of getting married sometime next year, in the summer… Like I said, we haven’t even set a date yet…”

“You don’t consider two months of dating before making a decision this serious to be rushing?” Mom cocked her head to the side, an amused half-smile on her face, shockingly calm about the whole situation. I started to protest, to clarify my statement, but she cut me off. “Honey, I know. You keep telling us that you ‘knew’ each other… and I’m willing to believe that in some form, considering I’ve seen some proof.” I felt my throat go a little dry – right, so maybe they hadn’t completely swallowed mine and Alley’s story as much as I thought they had… but, true, she had seen the picture of us together… and of course, the painting Alley had created. “But I can’t believe that you could have managed to hide her so completely and so well for all those years.”

I stared. “So, what are you saying?”

“I’m saying that you have to understand how this looks to us, Taylor. We don’t know how well you two really know each other. And love and infatuation are easy to mistake, particularly when one has been through the stress that you’ve been through. We’re saying it’s not going to hurt anything to slow down and take it easy. If you really love each other – and I suspect that you probably do – then waiting a little while isn’t going to change anything.”

I buried my face in my hands. “You’re not getting it,” I said morosely. “Mom, you yourself said… you said, the other night, that I looked better than I had in a long time. And you know why? Because of her.” I looked over at Alley, whose face was beginning to turn pink.

Mom sighed. “I know, sweetheart… and I agree, but--”

“I’m not understanding this, Taylor,” Dad said. “You act as if we’re telling you not to see each other, which we’re obviously not. You’re both adults, you’re free to date who you wish and visit and stay with each other when you want. We’re just asking you to put some more thought into this, to wait a little longer, before jumping in headfirst.”

Though I had told Alley I wasn’t backing down, I wasn’t sure how much longer I could keep arguing. It was exhausting. I was beginning to understand why criminals were interrogated for such a long time – slowly but surely, the repetition breaks down your will. And I guaranteed that if any criminal had to listen to this type of circular logic for hours on end, he’d surrender and give a full videotaped confession just to get them to shut up.

I didn’t reply to Dad’s comment – I was out of words. We were just repeating ourselves over and over as it was, and I knew that nothing I’d already said was gaining us any ground. I leaned back in my chair, momentarily closing my eyes. All I wanted was to marry the woman I loved – what was so fucking hard about that? Thousands of people did it every day! I exhaled heavily, opening my eyes and looking over at Alley. She was staring at the table, her face downcast.

Alley then broke the silence, her voice unusually thin and uneven. “This… this isn’t just a matter of dating; of being boyfriend and girlfriend,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. I jerked a little bit, startled at the way she’d taken some initiative. Up until now, she’d been basically relegated to my back-up cheerleading section. “Because Taylor and I didn’t start out that way. We have… this history. You say you worry that it could be infatuation – but I can tell you that for me, at least, it’s not.” She stopped, licking her lips, searching for words. I leaned forward, my eyes never leaving her. Where was she going with this? “We were friends first… and even that wasn’t instantaneous. It took some work, we got to know each other… and then, the more I talked to him, the more I liked him. I could tell him anything, I trusted him, I loved just… just hanging out with him, as friends. It was so natural. Easy. Comfortable. And… and you know, I’d never felt that way with a guy before…”

I felt my lips curve up at her precise description. “Yeah,” I murmured absentmindedly, though I knew no one was listening to me.

 “…and one day I realized that I didn’t just like him,” she whispered. Dark splotches of red started to form on her neck and cheeks, evidence of her embarrassment at being so blunt. “I… I loved him. I would have done anything for him… but I was too scared, too timid, to do anything about it. I mean, God, Taylor Hanson… being friends was one thing, but why would he want to date me, when he could have anyone?” She offered a helpless shrug. “And at the time, he was dating someone else, anyway. So... and… I had no idea he felt the same, until he told me…” she trailed off, looking unsure of how to continue.

My parents remained silent, studying her curiously, waiting to hear her out. Alley took another breath, looking up from the table. “Before… before he… before it happened…” she paused again, letting the double meaning of that vague phrase sink in. I noted the way she was taking extra care not to outright lie about anything – we’d stuck with staying general and indistinct when it came to any references to our ‘past’ relationship. “We had this talk, and… and confessed, I guess you could say. He had fallen in love with me, I had fallen in love with him… there were obstacles, we knew, but we both wanted to make it work. And then, literally…” Her voice started to tremble. “Literally, the next day, he was gone. Out of my life, and I had no idea what was going to happen… and no one to talk to. I mean, no one other than Louise, because she was the only one who knew. Who knew he was my friend…”

I felt strange, as if I was watching her from afar, and not sitting mere inches away. I wasn’t sure where Alley’s sudden bout of courage and honesty was coming from, but I found it impressive, even in spite of her stilted delivery and uncertain tone. It was incredibly heartbreaking, listening to her side of the story… I swallowed, reaching out and covering her hands with mine, squeezing her for reassurance and support.

She continued. “And all I could do was wait… I know you understand, because you waited, too. Oh, God…  it felt like… like an eternity. I wondered if he would ever wake up. If I’d ever talk to him again, or hear him tell another terrible joke, or watch him run his fingers through his hair, or hear him sing, or make him laugh. I thought about him… I thought about him every single day he was ‘gone’...” She pressed her lips tightly together, and I realized that she was trying not to cry. “And there was a point, when I thought… you know, I might not get to experience all those things again. I… I might have to move on with my life, without him in it.” She looked to Mom, seeing the stricken expression on her face – Mom appeared as brokenhearted as I felt, hearing this story… “And… I tried to do that. Tried to move on. I’ve dated other guys. I got a job. I went to school. But…” she trailed off for a moment, hastily wiping at her eyes. “I couldn’t do it. I tried, I swear. But I needed him…”

“Alley--” my mother started to interrupt, but Alley kept going, unable or maybe just unwilling to slow her momentum.

“And then, I saw on the news one day… on MTV, actually. Mid-afternoon. Louise was with me. ‘Taylor Hanson’s miraculous recovery’. I can’t tell you how… how that floored me. He’d finally woken up…” Alley sniffed hard, still struggling to maintain her composure. “But, as the weeks moved on… I realized that somehow, he didn’t remember me. Well, at first, I thought…” She stumbled a little, backtracking and trying to explain herself a little more clearly. “I thought, well, I’ll give him some time to recover. Let him get, um, settled. But later, after so much time had passed, I thought, if he had wanted to contact me, he would have, by then… and that’s when I figured it out. He didn’t remember, somehow. I’d heard of that sort of thing, that type of amnesia… but how ironic, how horrible, that I happened to be the one person he couldn’t recall? And there was nothing I could do, because of who he was to the world… I was so happy that he was going to be okay, but I was still miserable, watching him move on without me.” She hurriedly wiped at her eyes. “I didn’t know what to do – no one knew me, and I couldn’t get close enough to talk to him myself… I felt like a big part of me was missing, and it just ached…”

I stared down at the table, watching the gleaming cherry surface grow watery in my vision. I’d heard all this before, of course, but in a more truncated form. And except for the night I’d first remembered, when we’d stayed up until the early hours of the morning feverishly reacquainting ourselves, Alley had never cried when we’d talked about our year apart. Watching her composure slip away right in front of me was painful and eye-opening – I’d thought it before, but God, how had she done it? As much as I had complained about how shitty my life had been without her, I’d been somewhat blessed with ignorance – I’d known something was missing, but not specifically what, or rather who, that was. I couldn’t imagine if our positions had been switched, and I’d been the one forced to wait in vain to see if the love of my life would remember I existed. She was a lot stronger than I gave her credit for sometimes…

“So I had a lot of time to think,” Alley said quietly. “A year, literally. That if I ever got the opportunity again – if he ever remembered me, and was willing to pick up where we left off, that I wouldn’t waste it. That this time around, I wouldn’t be timid or scared, and I would never take him for granted again.” She gave Mom a quivering, tightlipped smile. “And then, this past June… I saw my chance to try. Louise… Louise and her boyfriend helped. We went to that show, he conned us some passes so that I’d get to see Taylor face to face, and try to, well, make him remember… you don’t know how terrified, how nervous I was… I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat for days, and I spent that time hoping, praying that he would remember me… and…” She took a deep breath, suddenly clapping a hand to her mouth – as if even the memory of those feelings, that fear of being rejected, was still too painful to recall in such detail. I felt something wet sliding down my cheek, and I quickly reached up and wiped the tear away.

“…and then he actually did,” Dad finished for her in a low voice. I cringed a little, a sudden feeling of self-loathing rising in my chest. At first I didn’t… I spoke to her, touched her, let her pass right by me… let her leave… before getting the sense knocked back into me… it took so much effort from Louise, how could that be? What kind of shitty boyfriend am I?

Alley nodded vigorously, taking another moment to compose herself. “To make a long story short, yes, he did, in the end,” she finally said, giving me a sideways glance. She apparently didn’t feel the need to explain the whole sordid memory-recall process. “And… and I realized, when we started catching up, that he was still the same guy I remembered. He still loved me… and then, when he came to stay with me this summer, it was like… I felt like my life was complete again.” Her cheeks reddened, matching the shade of her swollen eyes. “That sounds so corny and silly, I’m sorry…”

Mom shook her head. Her face was flushed, too, I noticed. “No, honey, that’s not silly,” she said gently, her tone quiet and sympathetic. “I completely understand.”

“So… I see what you’re saying. I know what you mean… we are young. We are moving fast… We haven’t been, um, ‘dating’ long… but… I’m in love with your son. Not infatuated. And please, don’t think we haven’t thought about this. I can tell you that I’ve thought about him, about us, for a long time. So when he asked me… when he said he wanted to marry me, how could I say no? Even though we knew everyone would think we were crazy… it just feels right.” Alley sat back in her chair, calmly staring down into her lap. “I don’t know what else I can tell you…”

No one said anything for several long minutes. Really, what was there to say, after that? Alley kept claiming she wasn’t the one good with words, but damn, she’d just laid it all out there for everyone to see. I’d told her the night before that she had to help me, that she had to say something, and she’d taken that request to heart. Everything I had said seemed positively trivial in comparison to her stark, honest sincerity – everything, from the story she’d told, to her barely-contained tears, to the unsure, stuttering way she’d spoken, as if the words were spilling out faster than she could say them. But what was even more amazing, I thought, was the fact that it was all a hundred percent true

I leaned over close to her, my lips close to her ear so my parents couldn’t hear. “Alley,” I whispered, glancing down and noticing the way her hands were in her lap, trembling. “Are you okay?” She gave me a shaky smile and nodded. I reached down and grabbed her hand again, holding it, steadying her. After a minute, I looked back up at my parents, who apparently still didn’t know how to respond to Alley’s passionate, heartfelt speech.

“Do you want to see the ring?” I asked quietly. Dad’s eyebrow quirked a little, but after a moment, Mom gave a tiny nod. Alley let go of my hand, reaching her hands up to her neck and unclasping the necklace. She pulled it out from under the collar of her shirt and gently laid the jewelry down on the table. Mom’s eyes widened.

Taylor,” she breathed. “Is this what I think it is?”

“An engagement ring. From Tiffany’s. And yes, that’s a real diamond.” I forced a laugh, attempting to lighten the mood. “I picked it out myself.” Alley stiffened a little beside me, as if holding back an unexpected laugh, but I ignored that. They didn’t need to know that Louise had babied me through the whole process. “I thought it was nice,” I added quietly. “Beautiful but not overdone. Like her.”

Mom sighed and closed her eyes. Dad picked up the ring, studying it closely, turning the tiny band over between his thick fingers. “Have you talked to Isaac and Zac?” he asked quietly, not even looking up from his hands.

I nodded. “Yeah… they know…”

“And?”

I realized he was asking what they thought of the whole issue. “You’ll have to ask them, if you want the unvarnished truth,” I said. “Isaac was upset at first, but he calmed down and we talked about it… he seems okay… and Zac… well, Zac didn’t have much to offer…” I watched as Mom opened her eyes, letting them rest on me. “…except, he did say that he thought we were made for each other.” I gave them a halfhearted smile. “And coming from him, that’s saying a lot…”

Mom smiled, though the expression seemed bittersweet. “It is,” she agreed, her tone sad; soft. Dad set the ring down and I immediately picked it up, closing my fist around it.

“Well?” I asked nervously. I wasn’t sure exactly what sort of answer I was seeking. After all, we were adults, as Dad had said, and so we didn’t need their permission to get married… but their approval, obviously, was very important to us…

“I know we don’t need your permission to do this,” I said, thinking out loud when it became obvious that no one else was going to say anything. “Because we’re old enough to make our own decisions. That’s not what I’m asking… I just want… We want you to support us. To try and understand… We didn’t mean to upset you all. And before you say anything, just remember what it was like when you decided to get married. What everyone else said to you, about marrying so young… how you felt. And look at you now.” I reached over and touched Mom’s arm. “Still in love and better than ever, as you yourself said tonight, Mom…”

Dad took off his glasses again, sighing, and rubbed his temples. “In all my years, I never thought I would hear this coming from you, Taylor,” he said. “I thought for sure you’d be the last of you three to get married.”

“I did, too,” I replied quietly. “Until I fell in love with her.”

Dad shook his head, looking more amazed than angry now – much like Isaac, the shock had finally settled in, and now he was in a state of disbelief. “Have you considered what this will do to you all? How it will affect you and your brothers? How it will affect you, Alley?”

Alley and I both nodded. “We know that things are going to change,” I said. “But… that’s inevitable, isn’t it? Marriage is a part of life, a part of growing up. It was going to happen sooner or later... ”

“I’m not going to lie,” Alley said. “I’m still adjusting to… to everything. It’s overwhelming sometimes. But I’m not naïve – I know it won’t always be easy, but I’m willing to put up with that… for him.”

“Are you certain of that?” Dad asked, his voice soft yet stern.

I watched, amazed and impressed at the way Alley met his eyes. I felt something like pride in my chest at the way she was handling everything – she was doing a hell of a lot more to help our cause than I was, it seemed. “Yes,” she said simply; with authority. “I am.”

Dad pursed his lips, and after a minute he nodded, relaxing a little. Alley and I watched, fidgeting, as he scooted back his chair and stood up. He beckoned to Mom.

“We’re going to take a minute alone,” he said. “You two stay here.”

Although I bristled a little at being ordered around – like a child – I just nodded. “Okay,” I replied. Mom stood up and the two of them walked out of the room, leaving Alley and I alone.

As soon as they were out of earshot, Alley sucked in a deep, shuddery breath. “Oh, my God,” she said. “I think I’m going to pass out.”

I scooted my chair closer to her, sliding my arm around her back. “Damn, honey,” I said, keeping my voice low. “Where did all that come from?”

“What? I just told them the truth, Taylor.” She was staring at the wall, looking a little lost and beleaguered. Although thankfully, the normal pallor was returning to her complexion. “I wasn’t even exaggerating…”

“I know.” I cocked my head to the side, smiling gently. I wanted to comfort her, cheer her up, make her smile… “You never fail to amaze me, you know that? Seriously. How did I manage to snag such an incredible woman, huh?”

It worked – she pinched her mouth tight, trying not to laugh at my mushiness. “Taylor, I swear…”

“What? I’m not even exaggerating. Did you see what you just did? I spent an hour pleading our case and they weren’t listening to a damn word I was saying. You open your mouth and in five minutes, Mom’s about to cry and Dad looks like he feels guilty for being so rough. And you say I’m the one with words…”

“You make it sound like I did that on purpose, like I was trying to manipulate them… I was just being honest, Taylor. I did feel that. I do feel that.”

“So do I.” She continued to zone out, gazing at the wall, and I prodded her. “It’ll be okay, Alley. I promise. Don’t worry.”

“Oh, ‘don’t worry’? How many times have I heard that one?” She leaned forward, setting her elbows on the table, and then smashing her face into her palms. “I don’t think you worry enough sometimes… I feel like we’re on death row here, waiting for a stay of execution from the governor…”

I scoffed. “There’s no need to worry, and you’re being overdramatic. Listen… they are not the be-all and end-all to this. I’m serious. I want them to approve and give their blessing, but like I said, we don’t need it. I’m marrying you, regardless… so don’t look so dejected…”

“But what kind of life can we have if everyone disapproves? That’s awful, Taylor… and I mean, it’s not like we can ignore your family, because you work with them…” Her shoulders were tensing up, and let my hand slide up her back, gently rubbing the tight muscles, calming her down.

“They’re just in shock right now. We’ve sprung some big news on them… even if they don’t approve now, I guarantee that in a little time they’ll get over that,” I said soothingly. The words were as comforting to me as they were to her. “They’ll see that they were wrong. I guarantee it.”

“You and your guarantees.” She groaned a little, turning her face to look at me. “Your optimism is incredible. And annoying.”

I smiled in spite of myself. “What can I say? Looking on the bright side of things is always more appealing. You should try it sometimes.” She gave me a sour look, and I laughed. “Besides, Alley. Not everyone disapproves. Isaac’s okay with it now… Zac, well, even he approved, in his own sort of way. And your family and friends were thrilled… you should have seen Ellen and Joanna’s face when I showed them the ring. I thought they were going to jump up and knock me down from excitement.”

“Taylor, every woman in this whole world wants to jump on you,” Alley said. “And it’s got nothing to do with the nice ring you picked out.”

I rolled my eyes. “Alley, you know what I mean. They’re excited for us, and more than willing to be there and help out. My point is, it’s all not as bad as it seems. We’re gonna be okay. Got it?” I pinched her side, and she yelped a little. “Huh?”

She squirmed, trying to wriggle away as I tickled her. “Taylor--”

Say it. Say, ‘I know, Taylor, we’re gonna be okay.’”

“But--”

“SAY IT,” I insisted.

“No!”

I dug my fingers into her ribcage and she squealed, tucking into a little ball from reflex. “Say it, Alley Kat,” I repeated. “And you know, while you’re at it… throw in an ‘I love you’ for good measure…”

“You’re ridiculous. And corny.” She was slapping at my hands, trying to get me to cease and desist, but I was having far too much fun.

“Too corny? Alright, then, something a little less sweet… okay, instead, how about a ‘You’re the best I ever had’?” I laughed out loud at her incredulous look.

“You’re the only one I’ve ever had, Taylor, so that’s not exactly a scientifically sound declaration…”

“Well, take your pick. Now…” I said, refusing to back down. I was going to pester her until the words came from her mouth – I’d always heard that speaking such affirmative things out loud helped you believe them. “…say it.”

She growled in exasperation, grabbing my still-wandering hand and crushing it until I finally stopped. “God, you’re demanding, you know that?”

“I’m still waiting…” I started to wrestle my hand free, but she gave in.

“Fine. I know, Taylor, we’re gonna be okay.” I withdrew, and she crossed her arms and pouted. “Happy now?”

“And?”

She snorted, but couldn’t stop the smile from sneaking in. “And…” she paused, evidently deciding which phrase to use. “I love you.”

I smirked, finally satisfied. “Good.”

She didn’t respond to that, only gave a soft little sigh and laid her head down on the table. I threaded my fingers in her hair, gently massaging her scalp. We both grew quiet, and despite my best efforts to listen, I couldn’t hear Mom and Dad – they were either whispering, or they’d gone even further away in the house to avoid us eavesdropping. I relaxed in my chair, letting my eyes wander all around the room. Mom had chosen a dark décor for the dining room. The walls were a deep red, sort of like a burgundy, and trimmed in gold. There was an elaborate chandelier hanging from the ceiling, but the light it provided was minimal, as if the dark colors of the room soaked in and absorbed it. There were various family photos framed on the walls – one of my grandparents, one of Mom and her siblings when they were younger, and a large one of all of us, taken when I was about twelve years old. I smiled, a thought occurring to me – Alley and I could start our own set of family portraits soon, in our own house. Maybe even real portraits, not photos… she’d already done one of her father, her uncle, and me, and that was a start… that would look very classy…

At the thought of my painting – the project she’d spent so much time on and managed to sneak and give to my brothers – I sat up a little. I’d thought it before, but it still killed me that I’d had something of hers so personal for so long, but had never fully realized its significance. And her speech, the way she’d described her loneliness while waiting all last year as I was going through the motions, was still eating away at the back of my mind.

“Alley…” I said, interrupting the quietness of the room. “I know I’ve said it before, but I’m sorry.”

“For what?” She lifted her head to face me, her brow wrinkling in confusion. Along the side of her temple, there was an imprint of her bracelet from where she’d rested her head on it, and I would have laughed had I not been so serious.

“For all last year,” I said quietly. “For all that shit. I put you through hell.”

“Taylor, we’ve been through this… it’s not something you could help. Or I could help. It had to happen that way, for whatever reason… and it doesn’t matter anymore, because you’re here now. And that’s all I care about.”

“I know. But it still merits saying. I can’t believe you waited for me that long…”

She gave me a look that clearly stated she thought I was an idiot. “You act as if I had a choice, Taylor.”

“Well,” I said hesitantly, “you did. And you chose to wait and see. You could have moved on without me…”

“Were you not listening earlier?! There was no choice, it was you or nothing… I couldn’t move on without you.” She ran her fingers through her curls, her face somber. “I tried, and there were times when I wanted to, so bad, but I just couldn’t. Did I ever tell you… did I tell you about the time I saw Alex at FYE?”

I felt my eyebrows shoot up at the mention of an ex-boyfriend. Of an ex who had been the bane of my existence for so many months… “No,” I said slowly. 

“He came into the store once when I was working,” she said. “It was March, maybe April. Around that time. I tried to hide, but wasn’t quick enough, so I had to talk to him…”

“Yeah…?”

“…and so we chatted, just casual, you know… typical stuff. But the whole time, I was sitting there thinking, I gave up this man for that unlikely long shot with Taylor? A good-looking guy, going to school and on his way to getting a great job, treated me like a queen…”

I closed my eyes briefly, feeling the stirrings of jealousy in my chest. Memories of watching Alex wrap Alley in his arms as they said goodnight on the front porch, of him opening the car door for her in a gentlemanly fashion, of him kissing her the way I’d wanted so badly to kiss her, ran through my head; making my blood heat up. “I don’t want to hear this.”

“Hear me out, Taylor. We talked, and… and I was sitting there thinking, I might be waiting for something that will never return. I might be missing out on something great, holding on to the faint hope that you would remember, and I got to wondering, what would I say, if he asked me out again? And it got to the point where I think he was considering it. From the way that he spoke… the things he said… and I thought, would I go for the sure thing this time, if he did that?”

I remained silent, unsure of what to say to that. It was a valid point. Why would she have wasted her time waiting for me, especially when she had a guy like Alex right there and willing? A man who, as I had seen myself, clearly adored her? He would have taken good care of her, of that I had no doubt…

She continued, reaching over and resting her hand on my leg. “But I knew what that answer was even before the thought finished crossing my mind. I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. Taylor, I… it’s you or nothing. I can’t pretend to love someone that I don’t, no matter how perfect he seems, and no matter what the circumstances. Because I love you. That’s it. End of story. I don’t have a say in the matter.”

I smiled ruefully. No choice? I understood what she was saying, but it still sounded awful. Like being dragged into something against your will… “That sounds horrible.”

“It’s not, though.” She paused. “Not now, anyway. Now that you’re here…”

I bent my head down, giving her a slow, deep kiss. “Right here. And not going anywhere,” I murmured when we pulled apart.

She finally smiled, meeting my eyes. “I know. Me, either.”

“Of course not. We’ve got a lot to do, you know.” I pushed her hair back affectionately. “Plan a wedding… find a place to live… get moved… build you a studio…”

She actually smiled. “A studio?”

“Of course. I promised you – you get your space, and I’ll get mine. It’ll be perfect…”

She sighed longingly. “It sounds like it…”

“It will be.” I squeezed her in a hug, pulling her into my arms, and she immediately rested her head in the crook of my neck. I’d still had her ring clasped tightly in the fist of my free hand the whole time we were talking, and so I unfurled my fingers, relaxing. The band lay neatly in the center of my palm. “Here,” I said, holding it in front of her face. “I believe this belongs on your hand…”

She started to protest, to say that we shouldn’t be so presumptuous, considering my parents were still deliberating in the next room, but I wasn’t having it. I picked up her left hand, sliding the ring back on her finger, and she grew quiet, studying the way the diamond caught and fragmented the light. After a moment, she sighed, sliding her arms around my waist. Smiling, I rested my head on top of hers, the curls tickling my chin and nose. I started to speak, to reassure her with more words, but then I realized that it was unnecessary. I’d said enough today. And as I’d learned, sometimes, actions spoke far louder…

So instead, we remained silent, wrapped in each other’s arms. Waiting to hear my parents’ final thoughts on our announcement.

*****

It seemed like hours passed before Mom and Dad returned, though in reality it was probably only about thirty minutes, if even that long. I had closed my eyes, resting comfortably against Alley, and apparently she hadn’t been paying attention, either, because we both jerked considerably when we heard my father clear his throat. I snapped my eyes open to see him standing across the table from us. Alley, meanwhile, looked embarrassed at having been caught in such an intimate embrace, and she let go of me and tried to pull away. But at that point, I didn’t care. They knew how I felt about her – why bother hiding it? I lifted my head from hers and reluctantly loosened my hold, but didn’t let go.

I held my chin up, keeping steady eye contact with Dad, trying to read his expression. Mom slowly strolled up beside him, and with one glance, I could tell she’d been crying. Crying? Why? Because of what they were about to tell us? Oh, shit… I felt my shoulders slump, waiting for the inevitable – more disapproval.

“Taylor.” Dad addressed me first. “You’re twenty-one. You’ve spent two of the last three years of your life unconscious. You’ve never had a relationship that could be considered serious. And now, after two months of dating your best friend, you want to marry her and bind yourself to her for life.”

“That pretty much sums it up, yeah,” I said, unable to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. “Thanks for the recap.”

Dad ignored my tone. “Alley.” Uh-oh, here we go. “You’re even younger, only twenty. Not even old enough to consume alcohol. You’ve spent the last three years waiting, in limbo, holding back from a normal life, on the off chance that he might come back to you. It paid off – he remembered – but now you have enough faith in this relationship, after such a short period of being together, that you’re willing to subject yourself to his lifestyle, which is not an easy one. You are so sure that this man right here is still the same boy you fell in love with that you’re willing to uproot your entire life to be with him.”

Alley nodded. “Yes,” she said. I made a mental note to try and emulate her answers a little more when it came to these things – really, less was more. My mouth was just getting us in deeper into negative territory…

Dad sighed. “Any parent would be crazy to support this. There’s a reason why the divorce rate in America is so high, you know – because marriage takes work. It’s hard. It’s not something to be rushed…”

Fuck… I clenched my eyes closed, my jaw tightening. Godammit, Dad, why can’t you just understand and take a chance? Ellen and Thomas were thrilled when we told them… so what’s your problem?

“But…” Dad trailed off momentarily, and I felt my eyes widen, a slim, faint hope arising within. “There are also times when emotion defies logic, and the experiences of others have no bearing on a certain situation. With you two, we want to tell you not to do it… but for whatever reason, I just can’t. Maybe it’s sentimentality, maybe it’s fatigue, maybe it’s the fact that I’ve never in my life seen Taylor so passionately determined to do something… and over the years I’ve seen a lot. Not to mention you’ve made it clear that whether or not you have our blessing, you’re going to do it anyway.”

I knew my eyes probably appeared to be popping out of my head. “Are you saying…?” I stuttered.

“If you really want to do this… if you really think this is the right thing… and if you love each other even half as much as you claim to… we will support you. You’re right. You’re adults. You’re old enough to decide what to do with your life.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Alley looked shell-shocked. “You’re serious,” I said in disbelief. “You approve?”

“In spite of our better judgment, yes,” Dad said wryly. “Though not without reservations.” I grinned, my heart pounding with the excitement, the anticipation, of what those words meant. We were in the clear… Finally, after months of complications, of chickening out, of gathering up courage, of hiding it and living in secrecy, we’d managed to jump the biggest hurdle. Oh, thank God… I let go of Alley and leaped up.

Dad was closer to me, so I hugged him first. He seemed surprised at my blatant show of affection, and hesitantly returned the hug. “Thank you,” I whispered, clapping him on the back.

“Don’t thank me, Taylor, I’m not giving you permission,” he said. “You didn’t need it, as you made sure to point out…”

I let go of him and stood back. “I know. But… your support means a lot.” I turned to Mom, with her red-rimmed eyes. I realized then why she had been crying – she’d agreed to let her son go. The first one to fly the nest, so to speak. I should have known – she’d gotten upset even when I’d moved out earlier in the year with Ike and Zac. “Awww, Mom…” I hugged her fiercely. “It’ll be okay… you’ve got plenty of other kids to keep you occupied for awhile…”

“Oh, Taylor, you always make things sound so simple.” Mom sniffed a little as she pulled back. “I just never thought it would be so soon…”

I couldn’t keep the smile from my face. “Well… me, either.” I turned around, looking back at Alley. She’d stood up from the table, and was standing awkwardly off to the side, her expression uncertain and hesitant. I surveyed her for a moment – simple flip-flops, jeans, and tank top; long blonde curls tucked back behind her ears; no jewelry, except for the diamond ring on her left hand. Down-to-earth, straightforward, real. And absolutely perfect for me…

She squirmed a little, wringing her hands and shifting between her feet, obviously still nervous. I beckoned her close. “Come here,” I said. She met my eyes, smiling tentatively, and took a few timid steps towards us. When she was within arm’s reach, I reached out and grabbed her, pulling her into a bear hug. She stumbled a little, her hands grabbing at my shirt to keep from falling.

“Taylor!” she gasped as I crushed her ribcage. “I can’t breathe!”

“Sorry,” I said, laughing. I pulled back but kept one arm around her shoulder. “I’m just excited… aren’t you?”

She smiled timidly at my parents, who were watching our interaction with amusement. “I am,” she said softly. “Thank you.” She reached her hand up to smooth back her hair, and Mom noticed that we’d put the ring on. She stepped forward, catching Alley’s hand in hers, and held it up for inspection, turning her hand his way and that to look at it from every angle.

“He has good taste, doesn’t he?” Alley asked shyly.

“He does,” Mom agreed, glancing up and meeting my eyes. “He sure does.”

*****

 “So what changed your mind? Really?”

As I spoke, I walked in the kitchen and leaned against the counter, arms loosely folded. Dad was fixing himself a giant bowl of ice cream, since Mom had gone to pick up Mac from a friend’s house and was therefore not present to scold him for eating junk food. I’d left Alley alone in the den for a little while, as Mom had brought Alley down the box of pictures they’d been looking through before she’d left. I had been going through the photos with Alley, explaining when and where they were taken, but eventually her laughter finally got to me and I’d decided to take a break.

 Dad looked over his shoulder at me, startled at my unexpected entrance. He licked his spoon while answering. “Hmmm?”

“What changed your mind? I mean… we thought for sure you all were going to refuse…” I picked at a frayed thread on my shirt. I was sure Dad was probably tired of discussing this by now – after their acceptance, we’d all sat down at the table again and had another talk, only this time it was a proactive discussion about all the things we needed to get done before next summer. Weddings, I was beginning to realize, were massive, time-consuming endeavors.

Dad laughed shortly. “Refuse what, Taylor? Disown you? Condemn the two of you?”

I shrugged uncomfortably. “Well, why not? It happens to other couples…”

He sighed heavily. “No, no… you should know better than that, son.” He dug his spoon into the small mountain of chocolate chunk, and I eyed it hungrily.

“Hey, give me a bite of that,” I said. I walked over and took the spoon from his hand, digging out a small dollop for myself. “You know what I mean,” I said after a moment, my mouth full of melting ice cream. “We thought you’d still disapprove… or at the very least, take some more time before deciding how you felt…”

Dad retrieved the spoon from me and began chowing down. “Truthfully, Taylor, if it had been up to only me… I’d have asked you to wait. I’m still not entirely sold on the idea. But…” he trailed off. “Your mother convinced me otherwise.”

What? Mom vouched for it voluntarily? Interesting… and intriguing. “She did?”

He nodded, a rueful smile on his lips. “Never underestimate the power of an emotional woman, Taylor. That’s something you might as well learn right now.”

“Oh, I know,” I said, remembering all the ups and downs I’d been through with Alley – the times she’d been angry with me, or upset, or stressed… the times she’d been heartbroken or devastated, the way she’d cried, and how seeing her in tears absolutely gutted me. “I’m learning, believe me…” Dad actually laughed, and I studied him, curious. “So what did she say?”

He raised an eyebrow. “That’s between me and your mother. But I will say this – your young lady in there made quite an impression on her. On both of us, really.”

I suspected he was referring to Alley’s near-breakdown earlier in the evening. I looked down at the floor, studying the geometric pattern of the tiles. “I can’t imagine what that must have been like,” I said, my voice dull. “Waiting that long. I don’t know how she did it.”

“She loves you,” Dad said simply. “That’s how she did it.”

I rubbed my face with my hands. “I know… but still…” I looked up at him. “I knew it was hard on her, but she’s always been pretty upbeat about it… but tonight, damn… even I had a hard time listening to her talk about it…”

Dad didn’t even notice that I had cursed, which was nothing short of amazing. “It was,” he agreed. “Especially because she meant it, and we could see that. That’s what got to your mother, I think – you know, we’ve never particularly… trusted any of the girls you’ve brought home before. They’ve always seemed…” He paused, searching for the right words.

“Fake? Dumb? Self-absorbed?” I helpfully supplied him with several apt descriptions. “Tell me about it…”

Dad laughed. “I was going to say something more along the lines of ‘shifty’, but I won’t argue with what you’ve said. That’s what’s impressed me about Alley – she seems very genuine.”

“Well, she tells it like it is,” I said. “Whether or not I want to hear it…”

“Ah, that’s a good thing, Taylor. Not going to hurt you.” He smiled. “We could all use someone like that.”

“Yeah…” I wiped the corners of my mouth with the back of my hand. “She’ll keep me on track… of that I have no doubt.”

“That’s what your mother said, interestingly enough.”

“Really?” Although I’d said it myself, it was a little surprising to hear from another source.

“Oh, she didn’t mean it quite the way you’re thinking, Taylor. But I think you know by now that there are a lot of people, particularly in your line of work, that just drag people down. It can be a dangerous game, figuring out who to trust. But with her… we think you’ll be fine.”

I nodded somberly, getting his point. “Yeah. And honestly, it’ll be nice having someone sane around on tour.” I smiled at him. “Although I think we’ll need to update the rider… she can eat like a horse, you know…”

Dad didn’t laugh like I thought he would. “I hope she really understands what she’s getting into.” He eyed me. “Taylor, I’ll ask you again – are you sure? It’s never too late to change your mind. And it’s better to err on the side of caution, you know…”

“I know. And she understands – she’s learning. We’ve talked about it… and I’m sure about this. Absolutely 100% positive.” I walked over to the freezer and retrieved the ice cream carton, deciding to fix some for myself. “It’s sort of scary to be this certain about something…”

Dad chuckled, though the tone was a little melancholy. “It is,” he agreed. “I was terrified to propose to your mother, even though there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that she was the woman for me.”

I nearly snorted, remembering how I’d spent two months procrastinating and aggravating the hell out of Louise, too scared to pop the question. “I know the feeling.”

He shook his head in wonder, staring off into the distance for a minute, before meeting my eyes. “So you said you asked her a few weeks ago?” he asked. “How did you do it?”

I felt the blood rush up into my face. Dammit, when were people going to quit asking this?? “Oh, you know,” I said lamely. “Typical… um…” I scrambled to remember the concocted story Alley had told the Sorrells about our proposal. “Downtown… in front of this big fountain… it was nice. Pretty…” I swallowed a bite of ice cream way too quickly and nearly choked as the freezing dessert burned my throat. “Nothing elaborate or anything… very simple…” Yeah, simple. Right down to the fact that we weren’t even wearing any clothes…

Dad nodded, the faintest hint of a smirk on his face. “What, you didn’t go all out? Plaster the question on a billboard, hire a marching band, skywriting?”

I snorted. “I think she’d have killed me if I’d done that. Flashy’s not really her style…”

“True,” he agreed amiably. “I can see that.”

“Yeah…” I wolfed down the rest of my ice cream and placed the bowl in the sink. After a moment of deliberation, I got the ice cream back out and fixed Alley a bowl, as well. With that and a spoon in hand, I turned to Dad. “Well… I guess I’ll go back in there. If nothing else than to make sure she hasn’t died from laughter yet…” Dad chuckled again and indicated that he was going to finish his snack before Mom got home. I started to walk away, but stopped. I wanted to say one more thing before I left.

“Thanks, Dad,” I said quietly. “I haven’t felt this good… this happy, in…” I stood awkwardly, holding the bowl and spoon in front of me. “…well, ever.”

He just nodded, his voice serious and even as he replied. “You look good. You look happy. And in the end, Taylor… that’s all that’s important to us.”

*****

Alley usually lays one of two ways – either sprawled out in all directions, or curled up in a little ball, like a cat. The sprawling form is generally reserved for lounging on the couch or sleep – I couldn’t even begin to count the nights I’d woken up to find her leg laying across mine, her arm resting on my face, or any other uncomfortable physical entanglement. The catlike curl, however, was something she did whenever she was tired, but unable to sleep. She would tuck her legs in, rest the side of her face on her hands, and simply stare, lost in thought. Which was precisely what she was doing when I came out of the shower later that night.

The television in my room was on, and Alley was balled up on the bed, her eyes glued to the screen. And, interestingly enough, wearing some of my clothes – a pair of yellow silk boxers and an old, threadbare wifebeater that had been softened by hundreds of wash cycles. Hmmm… she must have been procrastinating on doing her laundry. I stood in the doorway for a moment before entering, observing the way the boxers hung loosely on her hips; the way the stretchy shirt hugged her slim torso. Funny that she was just as sexy to me dressed like that as she was in Victoria’s Secret lingerie.

Whatever she was watching must have been fascinating, because she didn’t even notice when I finally stepped inside. Grinning, I threw myself down on the bed beside her, and she jerked, startled at my appearance.

“What are you watching?” I asked, stretching out beside her. I was exhausted, but not ready to go to bed just yet – the events of the day had gotten me far too wound up for that. This was it – we were set. No more hiding… what a relief. I felt so much lighter – it’s amazing what coming clean can do for a person. I really should do it more often.

“Oh… just this show on Discovery…” Alley yawned, unfurling her legs and rolling a little closer to me. The tight white shirt was all twisted up on her waist, and I reached out and tickled the bit of skin it exposed, grinning as she fought back her laughter.

I turned my attention to the screen for a minute. A thin, wiry-haired man with a thick British accent was standing in a decrepit, empty room, rambling on about plasma energy and EMF readings. I wrinkled my nose. “What the hell is this?”

Hauntings… it’s a show about ghosthunters.” Alley smiled. “What, you don’t like it? Is it gonna give you nightmares?”

I rolled my eyes. “These guys are quacks. You don’t actually believe all that, do you?”

She rested her face on one hand, smirking. “Well, I didn’t used to… but then again, I never believed I’d meet my future husband while he was in a coma, either…”

I laughed loudly. “Good point.” I rolled over on my side, sinking a little further into the soft mattress, and faced her. “Maybe they’re not so crazy, after all.”

“Maybe not. You never know, nowadays… hell, we should go on TV, tell our side,” Alley said. “We could go on Oprah, next time she has a show on unusual 'how we met' stories…”

I snickered. “Sure. And then we’d have to get a book deal, you know…”

“Of course. It would make a great book…”

“Or a great movie…”

Alley grinned infectiously. “Nah. They’d never get the casting right.” She picked up the remote and turned down the volume. I watched as she rolled over, sighing softly. “Well,” she said after a minute. “What now?”

“What do you mean, what now? We start planning! Which reminds me…” I grinned at her. We’d informed Mom and Dad that we would be deciding on a specific date soon, and I’d told Alley on the way home to be thinking about it. “Have you thought about a date?”

“Rush, rush, rush! I’ve only had like an hour to think it over!” She laughed. “Although…” She stretched the word out in dramatic fashion.

“Yes…?” I mocked her tone.

“I was going to suggest…” She paused, biting her lip in an enticing way. “June 25th.” Her lips curled up. “I looked it up, and it’s even on a Saturday…”

“June 25th,” I repeated incredulously, and then laughed loudly – of course. Why hadn’t I thought of that in the first place? It was just right in every way – early summer, before it got too humid; long enough away to plan, but not too long; and even on a weekend, so friends and family could attend. And a day already special to us in so many ways – hell, why not keep anniversaries on the same day? “I think that sounds perfect.”

She grinned happily, and I noticed the way the smile reached her eyes – it seemed I hadn’t seen one that huge and genuine in weeks, and it was exhilarating to see her finally relaxed, free and in high spirits again. “So do I.”