Forty Three: Take Me Home

A month later
Alley


I stood back, wiping my brow with my forearm. A canvas stood in front of me, covered in paint, halfway finished. I bit my lip, studying it intently. I'd been so worried when I started -- worried that I would have trouble, mess it up, ruin it... This painting was incredibly important to me. More so than anything I'd ever done, really... not to mention the subject matter had to be rendered absolutely perfectly. Taylor was an incredible, beautiful person, and I wanted to exactly capture that. As a result, I'd been working on it for over three weeks and was only halfway done, which was quite a long time for me. But like I said, it had to be perfect... I wanted him to love it. Louise had assured me that he would, and I sure hoped so. Maybe it would actually help lift him out of the strange, brooding mood he’d been in for the past few weeks.

My cell phone rang, and I quickly wiped off my hands and answered it. “Hello?”

“Hey. It’s me. We’re on our way back, you want anything?” It was Louise. She and Taylor had gone to the movies, which I was sure had to be an adventure, knowing Taylor's penchant for getting in trouble in public places. But it had been a good excuse to leave me at home so I could work on my masterpiece.

“Uh… pizza?” I suggested.

Louise groaned. “Again?”

“You got a better idea?”

“Well… I could probably think of one.”

“Well, then, surprise me,” I said. “How long will you be?”

“Probably twenty minutes or so.”

“Okay. See you then.”

I hung up and immediately went about cleaning up the catastrophe that was the garage. I had to get everything all put up and hidden before the two of them got home. I picked up my brushes, placing them in a small bucket with paint thinner to clean them off. I walked over to the sink, scrubbing furiously at my hands and wrists, and grabbed a can of kerosene, using it to scrape the oil-based paint from my skin. I threw away the newspaper I’d spread on the floor, and took the still-wet canvas to the basement to dry. Once everything was done, I quickly showered, put on some fresh clothes, and threw myself on the couch to wait.

There was nothing on television, which wasn’t surprising, considering that Sunday afternoons weren’t exactly prime time. I settled on Comedy Central, which was showing Office Space for about the fifth time that weekend.

The door opened, and Louise and Taylor staggered through the doors, several bags in their arms. I grinned as I stood up, stretching my arms over my head.

“Hey. About time you all got here. What’d you get?” I asked with a small yawn.

“A little bit of everything,” replied Louise. “We’ve got some Italian, Mexican, Chinese, and of course, American food here...”

I laughed incredulously as I watched them put out the miniature buffet. Tumbleweed, China Star, McDonald’s, and Pazzo’s bags covered the table. “Why in the hell did you get all this?”

“Well, we couldn’t decide on just one thing,” she said. “So I thought, ‘Why not?’ At least everyone will be happy.”

“I guess,” I said. “It looks like we’re going to be eating this stuff for a week.” I smiled at Taylor. “Well, hand me a plate, I’m starved.”

He silently handed over a paper plate, avoiding my gaze. What was with him lately? It seemed like nothing I said or did affected him. I might as well have just been some random stranger from the street, and not the girl who had taken care of him 24-7 for the past seven months. Sighing, I sat down after filling my plate with food.

“So, how was the movie?” I stabbed at a burrito on my plate with a fork. Dark red sauce spilled out through the tiny holes.

“It was good,” said Louise. Taylor remained silent, mechanically chewing some french fries.

“What about you, Taylor? What did you think?” I asked him, trying once again to engage him in conversation.

He shrugged. “It was alright.”

I quietly munched on a slice of pepperoni pizza. I noticed Louise shoot Taylor a stern look, but he still refused to elaborate. The silence was killing me... I was relieved when the phone rang, startling all of us. Louise stood up, walking over to answer.

“Hello?" She paused. "Yeah, she’s right here.” She handed me the phone.

“Hello?” I said.

“Hey Alley,” said a smooth male voice. Alex... I smiled, cradling the phone against my shoulder as I took a drink from my glass.

“Hey! What’re you doing?” I set down my fork and leaned an elbow on the counter.

“Ah, not too much. Just got back from the library, we had a study session tonight for history. What have you been doing?”

“Nothing. Absolutely nothing all day.” I laughed. “As usual.”

He chuckled. “I know the feeling. So, are you busy later tonight?”

I glanced at the clock. “No, why?” Louise eyed me over a forkful of sweet and sour chicken. Taylor continued to stare at his plate.

“I was just wondering if you’d like to see a movie or something… you know, since we didn’t get a chance to do anything this weekend. I know we have class early tomorrow, so if you don’t want to--”

“No, no,” I interrupted him. “I’d love to. What time?”

“Can I pick you up about eight? Most of the late showings are around nine or so.”

“Sounds great. See you then.”

“Bye, Alley.”

I set the phone down and resumed my meal, smiling softly. When I looked up, Louise’s eyes met mine, and they were flat and expressionless, which was unnerving. I had to look away.

“Alex?” she asked simply.

“Yeah. We’re going out later.”

“Mmmm.”

Finally, I stood up, grabbing my plate. I walked over to the sink to wash it off. “Well, I’m gonna go ahead and get ready. Is there anything you all need while I’m out?” I walked back to the table and stood between them, Taylor to my left, Louise on my right.

“I can’t think of anything. Can you, Taylor?” Louise asked.

“No.”

I held back a sigh of frustration. Taylor, what's wrong? Please, tell me what's wrong... God, there had to be something to make him snap out of it. His birthday was only weeks away…

“You need to start making a list, Taylor,” I said brightly. I leaned over and ruffled his smooth blond hair. “A birthday list. So we know what to get you.”

“I don’t want anything.”

I was surprised at how far those sharp words cut me. Even Louise seemed surprised by that. “Taylor!” she exclaimed, glancing over at me. “There’s got to be something you want.”

“The one thing I want I can’t have.”

I furrowed my brow at that last statement. Was that a reference to his old life? Something even I couldn't give him? My teeth gnawed on my bottom lip. “Well, just think about it,” I said gently. “And let us know. We want you to enjoy it.”

He finally looked up at me with those sad blue eyes. “Okay.”

I offered a tentative smile and carefully brushed a wayward strange of hair back behind his ear. “Well, I need to go get ready. I’ll talk to you guys later.” Taylor said no more, and so I left the kitchen and headed upstairs to get ready.

*****

At eight o’clock, the doorbell rang.

“Louise! Can you get that?” I screeched, frantically pulling a brush through my hair. “I’ll be down in a minute!”

“Yeah,” she called up the stairs. I heard the door downstairs open and slam shut.

“Hey, how are you, Louise?” Alex’s deep voice filled the silence. Meanwhile, I was still fighting with my devil curls...

“Good, good… How are you?” Louise responded. I winced as the brush hit a tangle.

“Ah, I’m doing well,” he said.

“So where are you all going tonight?”

“Well, it’s up to Alley, really. I thought maybe we could go see a late movie or something… not much will be open on a Sunday night, though…”

I yanked the brush through the tangle and tossed it down. Where the hell were my shoes? Why was I always losing them? I got on my hands and knees, checking under the bed and under various piles of clothing.

“What are you looking for?”

I looked up to see Taylor standing in the doorway. Wow, he was actually speaking to me without having been spoken to first. “Um, my shoes. The black boots, with the little thingies on the sides…”

He rolled his eyes. “Nice description.” Walking over to the closet, he pushed aside several random shoes and pulled the boots out. “They’re in your closet, where they should be.”

“Oh,” I said sheepishly. “Yeah. Thanks.” I pulled them on and quickly tied the laces.

“I thought of what I wanted for my birthday,” he said. His voice was even, toneless.

“What?”

“I want to go home.”

I blinked, but didn’t respond immediately. Home? At first, I felt slightly insulted. Weren’t we home to him? Weren’t we a family to him? But I looked at his face, so serious and expressionless, and for a moment, I felt like crying. He was still so lost, so needy...

“Well, Taylor,” I said, my voice shaky, unsure of how to respond. “That’s... um… I mean, I know that you want to go back, but I really don’t know—“

“Alley!” Louise yelled up the stairs, interrupting our moment. “Let’s not keep the poor guy waiting all night!”

I looked back and forth between Taylor and the door. I couldn’t leave him now, not in this condition... And certainly not since he finally decided to open up a little.

“Hey,” I said gently. “We need to talk. I’ll just go tell Alex that I can’t go.” I stood up and headed for the door.

“No,” he said, grabbing my arm. “Don’t worry about it. About me. I’m just a little… overwhelmed right now. We can talk later, if you want.”

“Taylor, it’s not a big deal!" I insisted. "Alex won’t care and--”

“Alley,” he said sharply, “I said don’t worry about it. In fact, just forget I said anything.”

"What? Taylor!" I said desperately when he turned around, as if to leave. "Taylor, what's wrong? Please, tell me what's wrong!"

"I said forget it." He stalked off, leaving me staring, open-mouthed, at his retreating back. I blinked back hot tears, feeling helpless and angry.

I slowly walked down the stairs, hoping my emotions weren’t written all over my face. God, why did I let him get to me? Now, granted, he wasn’t in the best of situations, but it never seemed to bother him this much before... what was his problem? I was trying to help him, for God’s sake, and he was acting like a spoiled child.

“Hey,” I mumbled at Alex, forcing what I hoped could pass for a smile.

He grinned and offered his hand. “Shall we?”

I nodded, accepting his hand and grabbing my purse from the counter. “See you later, Louise. And... he’s not feeling very good…" I added carefully. "Could you go check on him?”

She smiled sympathetically. “Yeah, I will. Have a good time.” She shut the door behind us as we walked outside. Alex's car was in the driveway, and he led me over to it.

“Who’s not feeling very good?” Alex asked as he opened the car door for me.

“Oh,” I said, regretting the decision to go out with Alex, after all. I could already tell that I would be spending the whole time thinking and worrying about Taylor... “Um, just the cat. I’m a little worried about him. He's been acting strange lately...”

Alex nodded as he got in the car and turned over the engine. He gave me a reassuring smile. “Well, whatever it is, I’m sure it’ll be fine. Things have a way of working themselves out.”

“Hope you’re right,” I murmured, staring back at the house, wondering what Taylor was doing. “I really hope you’re right.”