Chapter 26

Taylor

"Taylor...my friend...my brother...who I love so much..."

"No."

"But you didn't even hear what I had to say yet!"

I looked over the newspaper at Zac, who had a cross between a pleading look and a frustrated look on his face.

He looked like a constipated puppy.

"No."

"I had a big speech and everything!"

"No."

"Way to douse a man's fire..."

I sighed. Obviously, my minutes peace is not to be found in the living room.

"Okay, Zac. Give me your speech."

He cleared his throat and straightened up.

"Well...Meagan and I...you know Meagan, right?"

"Sarah's sister, yes..."

He winced. "I would rather you not call her 'Sarah's sister', thank you..."

"Does that strike a nerve?"

"Yes. The 'I dated your step-sister before she was your step-sister and I'd rather think that you are a homeless orphan instead of linked to her' nerve."

"Sounds like a painful nerve."

"Oh, it is. Feels a bit like this." He leaned over and twisted my ear.

"Hey!" I pushed him away. "I will bite that hand off...don't think I won't."

"Anyway...before I was so RUDELY interrupted..."

"Yes...do continue..."

"So, Meagan and I were thinking...we wanted to go out, to a dinner and a movie or something...but because of the aforementioned S...S..."

"Sound it out..."

"Sister thing..." he said, wrinkling his nose, "...and we thought...well, I thought that it would be less awkward if we were to...have company with us on this date thing..."

I raised an eyebrow. "Company, eh?"

"Yeah...you know...me and Meagan...Isaac and Jill...you and Bla-"

"No." I raised my paper up again.

"Taaaaaaaaaaylor! Come on! It's not like I'm asking you to bite a limb off or something..."

"Mmm."

"Don't make me do it...I'll do it..."

"Do what?"

Zac gave me a long look. "This is for your own good..."

"What is?"

He heaved a sigh. "Iiiiiiiiiike!"

"No...not...not Ike!"

"Very funny..." Ike said dryly, walking into the living room.

I covered my face with the newspaper. "Make the bad man go away..."

"What do you want?" Ike asked.

"Taylor doesn't want to go with Blaire with us."

"Well...he wouldn't really be WITH Blaire...he'd be with us..."

I lowered my paper a little.

"Yeah...we could make to where he didn't see Blaire at all the entire night..."

"Yeah...and it's about time he got his ugly carcass out of the house..."

I glared at him and rattled the paper.

"I mean...beautiful, loving carcass..."

"That's better," I muttered.

"So, how 'bout it, Tay?"

"You should at least call her..."

"Yeah...I mean...how are you ever planning on resolving your suppressed feelings for her?"

"Suppressed feelings...that's a good one..."

"Yeah...Oprah had a whole show on it..."

"Well...I guess I can at least call her..." I said, ignoring my brothers. I really had no desire to know which one had watched Oprah.

The paper was torn from my hands and a phone was thrust into my stomach.

"A bit eager, are we?"

"Just don't want you to chicken out on me...us..." Zac said, after Ike jabbed him in the side.

I started punching in the number, willing my hands to stop shaking. I raised my eyes.

"Are you guys going to...watch me?"

Zac crossed his arms over his chest. "Yes. Is there a problem?"

"No...just making sure..."

I finished dialing and warily held the phone to my ear.

One ring...

Two rings...

Three rings...

"I guess she isn't there..." I said, my heart slowing.

"Hello?" a painfully familiar voice said into my ear.

My jaw dropped open.

"Say something!" Isaac hissed.

My mouth moved up and down like a fish.

"...hello?"

I dropped the phone like a hot plate, quickly pressing the off button.

I closed my eyes and willed my heart to continue beating. Being pronounced clinically dead will do nothing for my career.

I was rewarded for all of my troubles with a smack across the back of the head.

"Hey!"

"Taylor...you IDIOT!"

"I panicked!"

"You PANICKED? So you hung up?"

"Maybe..."

"Taylor..." Zac said quietly. "Call her back. Call her back right now."

"No!"

The phone rang suddenly, scaring whatever was left of my heart into the great beyond.

I threw the phone up into the air.

Ike caught it and read the name on the caller id on the back of the phone. He handed it to me.

"Oh no you don't!"

"Taylor...if you know what is good for you...you will answer the fucking phone."

I gaped at Isaac. This is Isaac. Isaac never cusses.

I now know I'm in another dimension.

I took the phone from Isaac's hand and raised it to my ear.

"H...hello?"

A dial tone rang loudly in my ear.

I looked at the caller id.

WHITNEY, B.

"She...she hung up on me," I said, incredulously.

"Yeah, well...you hung up on her first..."

"No one hangs up on me..."

"You can't really blame her..."

"That...bitch hung up one me!"

I furiously punched *69 and waited for the dial tone.

"Hello?" Blaire said sweetly.

I punched the off button.

"Ha!"

"I have a feeling we won't be going to the movie any time soon..." Zac said.

The phone rang again, jarring my hands. I eagerly pressed on.

"Hello?"

It was the dial tone again.

"Watch this, you guys, watch this..." I said, pressing *69 again.

"Taylor?"

"Yes Zac?"

"You know how much fun you're having...doing this?"

"Yes..."

"Wouldn't you rather be REALLY 69ing her?"

I scowled at him. "You just have to take all of the fun out of a simple game, don't you?"

"I do what I can."

"Hello?" Blaire sighed.

I smiled to myself as I pressed off.

"He's like a child..." Ike whispered.

I stuck my tongue out at him.

The phone rang yet again.

Zac ripped it out of my hands.

"Give me that..." he pressed on and raised it to his ear as I glared at him.

"Hello?" he barked. "This is Zac!"

He paused for a moment, then looked at me.

"No...he won't be answering the phone...no, you can't talk to him...because he might try to hang up and do that *69 shit again...I know what it sounds like...no, I'm not talking about phone sex..."

He looked at me again.

"Yes...he's sitting right here...no, but you can tell me and I'll tell him...yes, I'm sure...okay...say that again...okay...'big asshole'...and what else?...okay...hold on..."

He held the phone away from his mouth.

"Blaire says that you are a big asshole and hopes that you contract gonorrhea and die."

"Well...well..."

"He says hi back."

"I do not! Zac, take that back! I do not!"

He waved his hand at me.

"Okay...how do you figure that?...wow...that much, eh?...yes, that is a lot of money...okay...hold on..."

He walked over to the phone base and pressed a button.

"Okay, Blaire, you're on speaker phone."

"Hello?" Blaire's voice flooded the living room.

"Hey Blaire," Ike and Zac said.

"Is Taylor in hearing proximity?"

"Yes..." Zac said, clamping a hand on my shoulder.

"Taylor..." she took a big sigh.

"Blaire..."

"I want you to understand that this hurts me more than it hurts you..."

"I somehow find this hard to believe," I said. Visions of thousands of Blaires rushing a stage I was playing on popped into my mind. I shivered.

"But...according to my calculations...you owe me approximately...$1,558.95."

"What!?" I shrieked.

"Excluding mental and emotional strain, for which you will be billed later."

"Mental and emotional...what?"

"I know it seems like a lot at first, but think of the years I've lost, and--"

"Have you been sniffing the formaldehyde?"

"How I've missed these wonderful exchanges of ours."

"You aren't serious..." I said, staring at the phone jack.

"I have receipts," she said. A shuffling of papers echoed through the living room. "'Middle of Nowhere' compact disc is $16.95. 'MMMBop to the Top' paperback--"

"Ha! That was unauthorized! You don't get a dime!"

"This is so sad," Zac murmured behind me.

"Did you say something, Zac?" Blaire asked.

"What? No...not me..."

The room was silent for a moment, until Ike snorted.

"I see nothing funny about this, Isaac," I fumed at him.

"Oh, I do. The two of you can't even find it in yourselves to even talk about each other to different people, yet alone to each other. Now you're talking and all you can do is argue. I find it rather humorous, myself."

"And after the week that you two have been totally depressed about it...now all you can do is fight?"

I slunk down in my chair. How I hate when family meddles in my personal life.

"I wasn't...depressed..." Blaire said uncertainly.

"Please. Spare me the denial."

"Save it for Oprah."

"What's with the Oprah obsession?"

Zac's grip on my shoulder tightened. "I don't know what you're talking about, Taylor. And I suggest you forget it, too."

"Oprah who?"

"Now that we have you two together...kinda," Ike said, giving me a stony glare. "I suggest you guys talk. Work these things out."

"Because we're tired of listening to the two of you whine and complain about how lonely you are."

"Taylor goes first."

"Why do I have to go first? Why can't...she go first?"

"Fine. I'LL go first," Blaire said testily. She sighed. "I didn't think there was anything wrong with our relationship until Taylor went totally postal and..."

"I went postal? Excuse me? You're the one who hid the fact that you've been infatuated with me since your childhood!"

"Oh, get over yourself! I thought you looked like a girl for the first two albums!"

I glared at Zac and Ike as they filled the room with their hilarious laughter and gasps for air.

"Sorry, Taylor," she said sheepishly.

"Humph."

"You don't look like a girl now...really!"

"Stop, Blaire...you're killing me," Zac gasped between laughs.

"Then why didn't you tell me?" I asked softly, scooting further into the seat. If I'm lucky, maybe it will swallow me whole.

"It never came up! What was I supposed to do, introduce myself as a Hanson fan?"

"Yes."

"You haven't told me what bands you're a fan of...why should I be any different?"

"Because you were a fan of ME!" I yelled. I shot up and stormed to the phone jack, staring at the red speaker phone light. "There is a difference, even if you insist on being blind to it! You don't know what it's like to have people pretending to like you, pretending to be in love with you, always pretending, ALWAYS, because of what you are! Not because of you, but because you're a rock star! You can't trust anyone!"

"Taylor...I-"

"I thought I could trust you," I continued. "I thought you were a genuine person, someone that could see beyond the facade of stardom. I wanted you to be that person. I was sure that you were the one I'd spend my entire life with. I'd only known you for three weeks, but I knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with you."

"Taylor..."

"And then I found out that you were a fan. You were just like all of the people who wanted to be close to me for a piece of the pie."

"I'm not like that, Taylor!"

"I want to believe you, Blaire. I really do. Because you know something? I still love you."

"Oh, Taylor..."

"As much as I hate myself for loving a fan, or at least someone who WAS a fan, I can't help myself. I still love you."

"Taylor...I-"

I gently pushed the off button, cutting off the rest of her sentence. I didn't think I could handle hearing her voice anymore.

"Does that mean no movie?" I heard Zac whisper to Ike.

"Shut up!" Ike hissed.

I looked at my brothers, who were staring at me with their mouths gaping open.

"Taylor, I had no idea..."

"Tay, I..."

I leaned against the counter, squeezing my eyes closed. "Just make them go away..." I demanded.

I opened my eyes slowly, but Isaac and Zac were still staring at me, with sympathetic eyes and sorrow filled faces.

"Don't...don't feel sorry for me...that's the worst thing you could do..." I choked out.

I pushed my way through them and ran out the door, ignoring my name being called over and over.

Taylor just needs to be alone.

.

Chapter 27

**Blaire**

"Blaire!" Bambambam "Blaire! Wake up and answer the door! I know you're in there!"

"Wha?" I glanced at the clock next to my head. 3:22 was instantly burned into my retinas by the neon green light. I rubbed my eyes and stumbled out of bed.

I wrapped a quilt around my body as I tripped on various items that were strewn on the floor on my way to the continuous pounding on the door.

"I'm coming...I'm coming..."

I hastily pushed open the bolts on the door and threw the door open.

"Someone better be dead...waking me up at 3:30 in the morning...insanity..."

I stared at the doorway. It was Jack. Bundled up in a coat and scarf, blowing on his hands.

"I hate you."

"No, no, wait! Don't shut the door!" He stopped the slamming door with the heel of his hand.

"What? It better be extremely important."

"Come with me," he instructed, pulling my wrist from under the warm quilt.

"What are you doing? You nutcase! I'm not going anywhere!"

"Just...trust me."

"The last time I trusted you, we were four, and you told me that the sand in the sandbox was made out of sugar and I should eat it."

"Yeah...and you ate it, too," he said, grinning. "Come on. It'll be fun, I promise."

I rubbed my eyes. "No."

"Please? For me?"

"I hate you."

"So I've heard. Yes, that's right...put on your shoes...no, glaring at me won't help any..."

"You are such an ass. Why am I still friends with you?"

"It's my sparkling personality and great smile."

"Right."

I was led down the hall of the apartment building, running the tips of my fingers along the walls, tracing the patterns of lines. I stared at Jack's head as the elevator lurched down the 10 floors to the ground.

"What are you staring at?"

"You. You need a haircut."

He brushed his hand through his hair. "Why are you looking at my hair?"

"The elevator lacks interesting decor."

"So am I your wall ornament?"

"Well, I definitely wouldn't put you in my home, but you'll do for now."

"Are you always this observant at 3:30 in the morning?"

"I wouldn't know. I'm usually asleep."

He rolled his eyes and yanked me out of the elevator as the doors slid open.

"I'm rather attached to that limb, thank you."

"Quit whining. Look outside."

He flung the door open. I stared at the ground.

"It's...white."

"It's snow! You've never seen snow before, and it started snowing a few hours ago, so I thought..."

"What did you think, Jack?"

"I thought..."

"Did you think that you would wait until morning? When I was awake?"

"No..."

"Of course not! We have to rush across town and bang on Blaire's door and wake her up just to see white on the ground! At 3:30 in the morning! You dumbass!"

"I didn't know if it was going to still be there in the morning!"

"I suppose the snow was going to walk away? Decide it was too good for my sidewalk and just go elsewhere in the world?"

"It could have melted."

"Yes, because the sun would melt it during the night...how could I have forgotten that?"

He glared at me. "I...was being...nice!"

A cold blob of white nailed me on the chest. I looked at it. I looked at Jack.

"Were you aiming for that boob or are you just a bad shot?"

"White ball, corner pocket..." he said, throwing another snowball at me.

I angrily wiped it off my hair.

"Prepare to die, Red."



I fell back on to a half melt pile of slush. I felt the water seep into my flannel pajamas. I shivered violently.

"What are you doing?" Jack asked, standing above my head.

"Having a seizure, apparently."

"You're going to get pneumonia if you lie in that water. And then your mom is going to kill me. And I'd rather not die before I get a chance to eat Mrs. Hanson's pumpkin pie on Christmas."

I groaned and covered my face with my hands. "Please do not bring up Christmas or Hanson. I'd rather not hear either of those words for the next five years."

"It's Christmas Eve, Blairey."

"I'm aware of the date. I have a calendar."

"Yes, that cute little one with puppy dogs and wittle kittens."

"I've told you. The pet food company gave it to me when we bought that special shiny coat food or whatever."

"You are such a 12 year old girl."

"For 12 year old girls everywhere, you deserve a big 'Girl Power!' sticker for that statement."

He dropped on to the ground beside me and stretched out.

"So...what's up with Christmas?"

"Nothing's up with Christmas. It's just another day."

"Oh, it is not. It's a national holiday. You get days off of work. It's not just another day."

"Maybe I just want to stay at home for Christmas. I mean...Andrew went back home. I'm so far away from everyone I know..." I punched the snow. "I would be uncomfortable around the Hansons. Especially Taylor. Oh, shut up. I know what you're thinking. That I'm just lingering on this little...three week fling that's going to have no significant value when I'm old."

"No...I wasn't thinking that."

"What were you thinking?"

"That I'm sorry that you even met Taylor if he caused you this much pain."

I flicked my eyes over to him. He was lying beside me, dripping snow slush from his hands onto the small patch of brown grass that had been uncovered during our snow fight.

"Aww, Jackers...I was almost touched. Really. I was." I slammed a handful of snow sludge on the side of his head.

He grinned at me, snow sliding down his face. "You know you love me."

"Yes, I know...unfortunately. One of those unconditional love things."

"Pfft. Whatever. You know you want me." He threw himself on top of me.

"Goodbye internal organs..."

"Oh shut up." He gave the side of my head a big kiss. "You know, Blaire..."

"What?"

"I really wish you would come with Jill and me to the Hansons for Christmas."

"I'll think about it," I said, squirming under Jack's shoulder blades.

"No...no, I don't think that will do..."

"Jack...get off me..."

"Say the magic words."

"It's almost daylight. Someone's going to see me. And I'm in my flannel pajamas."

"Nope...wrong words." He smacked my head again.

"Um...I love you?"

"Tempting, but no."

I made one last attempt to get out from under Jack's body. "If I wasn't in my pajamas and in front of my apartments where people know me...I would totally take you."

"Please."

"Argh! Fine! I'll go with you to the Hansons! But only for dinner. I shall do no socializing beforehand. Now get off me!"

"Victory is mine!" He gave me one last smack and rolled off. I groaned as I heard my bones pop.

"Need some help?" he smirked, holding his hand down to me.

I managed to stand by myself, dusting snow off of me as I went.

He nudged my ribs.

"Race you to your apartment?"

"You're on."

.

Chapter 28

Taylor

A door slammed on the other side of the house, and I sat up on the couch, averting my eyes from the television screen that was playing yet another Christmas movie. I rolled off the couch and walked through the dark house. I really find no need to turn on lights when no one is occupying it. The dark is a type of security for me. I feel shielded. Even if it is in my living room, and the only thing I'm shielded from are Zoe's toys.

I stopped in my tracks when I rounded the corner and heard a breathless female voice that did not branch off from my family tree.

"Are you sure no one's here?"

"Everyone's out doing Christmas Eve-y things...they won't be back for hours," Zac murmured between smacking noises.

I thought I was going to be sick. I was listening to my brother on a date.

Now this is where my dilemma comes in. Under normal circumstances, I would be up the stairs right now, barging in Zac's room and breaking up any sexual acts before they had a chance to get into their perverted little minds.

But I also know that Zac has been really nervous with Meagan, even though he is absurdly fond of her. The whole Sarah thing has messed with him a bit. Made him more paranoid than usual.

And I also know that me interrupting like any normal big brother would earn me about a month in the hospital from Zac induced injuries.

I ran blindly back through the house, jumping over toys and clothes that were on the floor. I felt like an Olympic hurdler.

Cujo lifted her head from her position on the ground as I slid into the living room and dove on the couch.

"You never saw me," I whispered, turning the television off and laying back.

Cujo woofed and stood up, shaking her head. She sniffed the air a few times.

"Oh, lie down, you mutant."

She turned her massive head to me and stared. She woofed menacingly.

"Oh, is that supposed to intimidate me? Look at me. I'm scared. The big bad dog is going to eat me now."

A loud thump was shook the house. It sounded like the roof was going to fall on my head.

"Christ," I whispered.

Cujo cocked her head at the ceiling.

"It's just Zac and his horny girlfriend...who by the sounds of things is�being tortured or something," I told Cujo, as a loud moan filled the house, courtesy of Meagan and her extraordinary vocal abilities.

Cujo barked loudly as Zac made some sort of animal noise and I slammed pillows over my head and hummed the theme to 'Oklahoma'.

"Cujo! Shut up!" I hissed through clenched teeth as she barked again. She ran around in a circle. "Cujo! Go...away!"

She looked at me again, and at another of Zac's yells, sprinted out of the living room.

"Argh! CUJO! Get back here!" I scrambled off the couch and started the chase, slipping on the lacey throw pillows I had thrown on the floor before I took my manly rest. Manly rests do not involve lace.

"Cujo...nice doggie, pretty doggie...come to Taylor..." I gasped as I saw her tail disappearing up the stairs. "DON'T GO UP THERE!"

Up There is Zac's room. Up There is where Zac is currently having his date. Up There is where Zac and his date are doing things that you'll probably only find in old school porn videos.

And the damn dog was giving me no choice but to venture Up There.

I ran up the stairs three at a time, tripping and pulling myself up with my hands. I lunged and managed to grab Cujo by the collar as she reached the top of the stairs.

That's what I should have done with my life. Become a stunt double. That's where all the good money is.

Joe Pesci is in those Lethal Weapon movies. Maybe he needs a stunt double.

Cujo pulled forward, dragging me on the stairs.

"Hey you. Dog. I've got you. Resistance is futile, and all that jazz."

She grunted and inched forward. I felt the carpet burn my arms.

"Ouch! That hurt, you damn dog!"

"Oh...oh my god..." Zac's voice seemed to shriek.

I stared at the door. What the hell are they doing in there?

Besides the obvious, of course.

Cujo cocked her head and grunted.

Meagan let out another yell, and I winced. Cujo growled at the door and barked like mad.

"Zac...is that your dog outside the door?"

"No...I don't have a dog..." Zac murmured.

"Well then your brother is barking at the door."

"Don't be silly, Meagan...it's probably just outside on the street...come back over here..."

"Okay...if you're sure..."

Zac whimpered. The hairs on the back of Cujo's neck stood at attention, and she barked furiously, twisting and turning against my hand, running forward. I felt my body sliding off the stairs and towards Zac's door.

"No! Cujo, stop! Noooooooo!"

Cujo slammed my head against Zac's door and it flew open.

Meagan shrieked, a repeat performance of her earlier shrieks and squeals, and flew to the head of Zac's bed, pulling his white sheets with her.

I tried not to look at her. Really...I did. But there is just something about flushed, sweaty, beautiful women with long, flowing, curly red hair wrapped in translucent sheets that make me stare. I can't figure out quite what it is. Must have been all that art history I learned as a teenager.

Of course, it would have been a much prettier picture if only: a. the aforementioned woman had not been my brother's girlfriend and just in the process of having sex with him, and b. if said brother had not been sitting in said bed, and furiously wrapping a blanket around his waist as he stalked towards me and his Satanic canine.

"What the fuck are you doing?" Zac yelled.

"Apparently a lot less than you are...Toga Boy," I said, eyeing Zac's sheet.

Zac exasperatingly shoved Cujo's head away from him. "Taylor...get the hell out. GET OUT!" He roared as I slowly picked myself off the floor.

"I'm going, I'm going! Christ..."

"And take Cujo with you! And quit looking at Meagan!"

I quickly looked at Zac, whose face was slowly growing redder and redder by the minute, from glancing at Meagan, who was clutching the sheet on her chest and staring at the wall.

She should really be thanking me right now. I mean, she'd hate herself in the morning. Who really wants to have sex with Zac, who gave his last girlfriend old tapes of the Weather Channel because she would occasionally ask if it was going to rain that day? Zac, who when he was 15 tried to check out self help books from the library so he could learn to be a better kisser? Zac, who has pictures of his damn dog in his wallet?

I slid down to the ground outside Zac's door and covered my red face with my hand. I felt Cujo's nose being pressed into my thigh. I glared down at her.

"You are in big, big trouble."

.

Chapter 29

Blaire.

"Merry Christmas!"

"I don't want to go to school today, Mom!" I mumbled, dragging my quilt over my head. I could feel the sun penetrating the dark recesses of my bed.

"Rise and shine, Blaire."

"Just five more minutes."

"Nope. Sorry, sweetie. This is for your own good."

The quilt was yanked off of me and thrown at a heap at my feet.

"You are a bad person," I mumbled into my pillow.

"That's what I'm told," said the bad person as I was flipped over on the bed. I shielded my face from the window.

"I win. She's not wearing a bra. Cough it up, Muff."

My eyes shot open. "Christian?! What are you doing here?!" I threw my arm over my chest.

"Winning. A guy's got to eat."

Muffin rolled her eyes and slapped a five in Christian's outstretched hand.

"I'm only worth five dollars? Muffin-I'm shocked."

"He wanted twenty to bet that you sleep naked."

"Pervert."

He shrugged.

"Throw some clothes on, Blaire," Muffin said, taking Christian arm and leading him out of my room. "We're going to go make breakfast."

"Why?"

"Because I'm hungry," Christian said simply.

Muffin stopped at the doorway, pushing Christian. "Blaire, we know that because Andrew is gone, you're alone for Christmas, and..."

"Oh god," I muttered, falling back on my pillow.

"And we're going to stop it, Christian we're going to make you a traditional Christmas breakfast and stuff, you know?"

"Yeah, and we bought REAL food, so I don't have to eat your healthy food junk," Christian yelled from the kitchen, as a clatter of pans hit my ears.

I slapped my hand to my forehead.

"Ignore him. Santa put coal in his stocking, and he's a bit cranky."

"No it's because Muffin woke me up and wouldn't give me my Christmas coffee."

"He's a slave to the bean," she sighed. "Get dressed!" she said, and slammed the door.

I rubbed my hand down my face and stared at the ceiling. Sometimes I don't know what I'd do without Muffin. And even Christian. But I think my life would be a lot more pleasant without Christian. And I'd probably sleep later without Muffin.

I rolled off of the bed and made the five strides to my closet, where a pair of flannel pants were pulled over my boxer shorts and an old Lifehouse concert shirt was applied over the tanktop I had slept in.

I walked blearily to the kitchen area, rubbing my eyes.

"Good morning Sunshine!" Muffin said cheerfully, waving a spatula at me. Christian was sitting at the counter, toying with a ribbon that adorned one of the many boxes stacked upon the counter.

"What's this?" I asked, picking the top one up. 'To Blaire, From Muffin' was written in Muffin's loopy handwriting. "What are you people trying to do to me?"

Muffin shrugged and scraped at the pan. "We're just trying to, you know, give you a normal Christmas,"

"Normal, huh? So where are the Irish relatives trying to feed me black and white pudding? Where are the hick relatives trying to replace Dad's turkey and Mom's vegetarian meal with a side of beef? Where is the annual argument between Grandpa Whitney and Grandpa Malone over whose fault it was that my parents got married? Where is Andrew somehow managing to destroy something? Where is Grandpa Malone trying to get my cousins and me to have a sip of his Guinness? Where is one of the relatives trying to slip a bottle of some sort of alcohol in the eggnog? Where are the annual drunken Christmas carols from Grandpa Whitney and Grandpa Malone? Where is Mom swearing to never do Christmas at our house with all the relatives ever again, while Dad is thanking God that no one killed each other? That's MY normal Christmas."

"We don't have that�but look! Your breakfast is happy to see you!" Muffin said, putting a plate in front of me. I glanced from the plate, with a pancake with blueberries for eyes, a strawberry for a nose, and an orange slice for a smiling mouth, to Muffin, whose expression matched the pancake, to Christian, who was slowly and carefully pulling a ribbon off of a box wrapped in Grinches.

"Look Blaire, you just go eat your happy breakfast," Muffin said, slapping Christian's hand with the spatula, "and when Jack and Jill get here, we'll open our presents and stuff. Okay?"

"Just do it, Blaire," Christian mumbled. "She's in her matronly Christmas mood again. Be a good baby bird and obey."

The echo of a knock at the front door reverberated through the apartment, and saved my stomach from Muffin's breakfast and me a trip to the hospital. The pancakes looked a bit chunkier than they should have been.

"I'll get it," I said, placing the plate on the counter and walking the few strides to the front door. I unlocked the locks and swung the door open.

"Hey Blaire," Jill said, looking up at me over her bulky turtleneck sweater.

"Come on in, Muff and Christian are in the kitchen, about fifteen steps that way," I said, stepping aside and letting Jill in. "Where's Jack?"

"He's getting the rest of the presents out of the car," she said, running her hand through her hair. "He'll be up in a little bit."

I leaned against the door as I watched Jill walk to the kitchen and greet Muffin and Christian. Jill and I have never been very close. When we were younger, Jill was always the little lady, the one who would sit on the park bench as Jack and I made mud pies and planned how to ambush her with them. I don't always feel comfortable around her. I think she disapproves of me. And I hate disapproval.

"So Blaire, are you still coming to the Hanson's with Jack and me?" Jill asked as she sat down next to Christian at the counter.

"As far as I know."

"So you are going?" Muffin asked. "That's good! We were all hoping you would."

"I wasn't," Christian said, plucking the strawberry off of my happy breakfast.

"Yes, well, you're a ass," Jill said, sweeping her hair out of her face.

"Christian, can you not be nice for one day? All I want for Christmas is for you to be nice."

"Hey, I am a perfectly nice person," he protested, popping the strawberry in his mouth.

"Right. And I run into people with my name everyday," Muffin said as I responded to the rapid knocks on the door.

"Next time, everyone is storing their own presents at their own house, no more 'Jack, we can hide them from Blaire at YOUR house!'" Jack's face peered over the mountain of boxes of assorted sizes in his arms. "Arguing already?"

"Of course. It's better than coffee."

"According to you," Christian muttered, picking the blueberries off of the plate.

"Again with the pessimism! You should be drug into the street and shot!" Muffin tugged at her red tips.

Jack's eyebrow, the only visible part of him, raised.

"Would any of those happen to be for, you know, me?" I asked, eyeing Jack's boxes.

As much as I hate to admit it, my Christmas side was coming out of the red and green tinseled closet. The sight of Jack holding a mountain of boxes wrapped in Christmas paper, more than half of them probably for me, made me want to unwrap anything and everything in sight.

Where are Taylor and his layers of clothes when I need him?

"I feel like Santa Claus, but without the white beard and fat stomach."

"I'm sure there's a fat Jackers tummy under there somewhere," Muffin said, bending down to grab two boxes that had fallen off of the counter.

"Fat Jackers tummy, my ass, this is a rock hard stomach, woman! Feel those abs!"

I gingerly poked the area under his armful of boxes. "That doesn't feel rock hard to me."

"You're a little�ah�south of the border, Blaire," Jack's voice mumbled through the cardboard and paper.

"Okay, I think I've heard enough sexual innuendos coming from my brother for today," Jill said, rising from the counter. "Can we open the gifts already?"

There was a chaotic five minute gift exchange, where everyone mauled Jack for the presents they had bought and threw them in the recipients general direction. Mutters of "Here, this is for you," were uttered softly, as no one wanted to be seen showing affection for one's friends.

The next few minutes were somewhat silent, with an 'ooh', 'ah', or 'I've been wanting this for so long! Thank you so much!' thrown in.

"Um, Jack?" Muffin asked from her position on the couch, between Christian and Jill. "What exactly is this supposed to mean?"

She held up a box of brown hair dye.

"Well, it completely depends on how you see it," he said from his position next to me on the floor. "On one hand, you can look at it as an opportunity to delve into a more politically correct end of the hair color spectrum." He quickly unwrapped a gift, and held the shirt up to his torso. "This is going to look good."

"You actually got her hair color?" Christian asked.

"I was on a strict budget!" he said, folding the shirt and setting it back in the box.

"Jack! I pay you better than that!" I said, scowling at him.

"I'll have you know that that is the best money can buy. Nothing but the best for my Muffie."

"You have lost all Muffie calling privileges, buddy."

"Okay, I take it I'm supposed to become a housewife?" Jill said suddenly, holding up a set of dishtowels with black music notes.

"Just trying to promote cleanliness, I guess," Christian said, frowning as he struggled to get ribbon off of one of his gifts.

"Are you saying I'm not clean?"

"If the feather duster fits, " he shrugged. "Hey!" he protested as Jill brained him with the dishtowels. "I didn't even get you those!"

"Oh, sorry."

"Now when you open a Swiffer sweeper, you'll know it's from me."

"You better be joking."

"Why don't you open some of your presents, Blaire?" Jack asked, poking my side.

"Yeah, Blaire, what'd you get?" Muffin asked, shifting her attention from a thick book on her lap to me.

"I just want everyone to know that I am participating in the festivities under protest, and-"

"Shut up and open your presents," Christian said, throwing up a wad of wrapping paper at my head.

I grinned at him. "If you say so," I grabbed the nearest box and tore into it, shreds of paper flying around my head.

"Under protest, hm?" Jill smirked.

"This is the violent approach. Take that, you dirty wrapping paper! How dare you bring along merriment!"

"Oh, I forgot to tell you, Blaire," Muffin said, flipping through her book, "Audrey and Charlotte called while you were still asleep."

"Really?"

"Yeah, they were at Charlotte's penthouse. They said to tell you merry Christmas and they'd call back later."

"Why didn't you wake me up?" Audrey and Charlotte were two of my closest friends growing up. They lived in New York now, Audrey a writer for the New York Times, Charlotte a district attorney. I hadn't seen them since I moved to Oklahoma last year.

"Some people don't like to be beheaded before breakfast," Christian said simply.

"So what did you get, Blaire?" Jill asked, setting her dishtowels and bath towels on the floor next to her feet.

I shook shreds of brightly colored Santas off of the gift.

"Um�Christian?" I raised my eyebrows.

"What?"

I held up my gift. "Cooking Tofu For Dummies?"

He shrugged. "I figured, you know, you can't have POSSIBLY mastered how to cook your, you know, vegetarian shit."

"Even though she's been eating it all of her life?" Muffin asked.

"That means he didn't know what to get you," Jack whispered.

"Liar! I knew what to get her. I saw it in some weird store. It was a huge lamp, and the lampshade was stained glass. It just shouted out 'Blaire!'"

"So why didn't you get it?" Jill asked.

"Blaire doesn't pay me enough," he shrugged.

"I pay you plenty!" I protested. "Stop laughing!"

This is the best way to spend Christmas�if you're forced against your will to celebrate it in the commercial fashion. Sitting in my too small apartment with four of my best friends, laughing, and having a good time. Good enough, for the lack of time I've been awake and the absence of caffeine in my system.

This just might turn out to be a pretty good Christmas.

Jill looked at her watch. "Jack, we really need to get going if we're going to make it to Isaac's parents. We need to stop by the house and pick up those pies I made."

"That's what we should've gotten Jill instead of towels�pie plates. You can never have too many pie plates," Christian said, rubbing his chin.

"If you get me a pie plate as a wedding gift, you will find yourself with a pie plate shoved up your ass."

"How feminine of you."

"We have to go now?"

"You are coming, right Blaire?" Jack asked, looking down at me as he shrugged his coat on.

"Of course she's coming," Muffin said, frowning at me. "She's going to go and have a great time. Right?"

"Good time, right," I said feebly, as Jack hoisted me off the ground. "I guess I forgot about that part, between the imminent fear and anxiety I'm feeling."

"Just keep repeating it to yourself, I'm going to have a good time, I'm going to have a good time,"

I'm going to have a good time.

If there is a God in the Heavens, I'm going to have a good time.

.

Chapter 30

Taylor.

You know it's going to be a bad day when you wake up to the smell of hot breath and dog food.

After a few seconds of Cujo sitting on my chest and breathing on my face, I attempted sitting up to throw the damn dog off of me, only to find that my arms were pinned to my sides.

Cujo appeared to be grinning at me.

"Get off of me, you oversized waste of space. I'm still mad at you," I muttered, clenching my teeth and glaring at the dumb mutt.

The stupid animal then did the unthinkable.

She leaned over and licked my face.

"ARRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGHHHH!" I yelled, sputtering. "ZAAAAAAAAC! GET YOUR DOG OOOOOOOOOOOFFFFFF MEEEEEEEEEEEEE!"

A shrill whistle came from the living room. Cujo cocked her ears and looked at the door.

"Yes, get off of me" I whispered. I could feel my internal organs being flattened.

She dug her claws in my chest and jumped off, barking her happy way to the kitchen.

I scrambled to the bathroom and saw deep red scratch marks running down my chest.

"I HATE THAT DOG!"

"I doubt she's very fond of you at the moment!" Zac yelled back at me.

I slammed the heel of my palms against the sink a few times before joining the rest of civilization.

And ran a comb through the rat's nest I fondly refer to as hair, which seemed to have spawned a life of its own during the night.

"Merry Christmas, Tay!"

I stared blearily at the sister who had squealed joyfully. "Merry Christmas, Zo," I mumbled, shuddering at my reflection in the mirror, and heading downstairs to the kitchen.

"Let me guess, you need coffee?"

"You have been taught well, grasshopper."

"I've learned from the best."

I ruffled her hair and left her in the living room, where she discovered Niv playing in her stocking.

I collapsed in a chair at the kitchen table.

"Morning Sunshine," Mom said cheerfully, setting a mug in front of me.

"I hate that dog."

"I know you do."

"Tell me truthfully, do I look like a human chew toy?"

"Well, if you squint a little"

I smirked at her and raised the mug to my lips.

"I'm not that stupid dog's friend, why can't she leech onto Zac?"

"You're so skinny, your limbs probably remind her of a bone."

"Wait!" someone screamed behind me.

I made a choking noise from surprise. "What the?"

"Merry Christmas!" a flash blinded me, and I choked on the rest of my coffee.

I really do not get this family.

I rubbed the floating black spots out of my eyes to see Zac and Dad grinning at me.

"That will be a great one!"

"That will scare people."

"It's a peek into the real life of you boys."

"It's Taylor in his pajamas."

"I bet I have the perfect frame for it," Dad said, looking from the curtains in the background to me.

"I bet a magazine would pay some major bucks for that," Zac mused.

Zac and Dad both share a love for photography, making many awkward moments for the rest of the family.

"Oh no you don't," Mom warned, holding a dishtowel in front of her face. "If you point that at me, Walker Hanson, that camera will soon be protruding from your nose."

"Nose? C'mon Mom, you can do better than that."

"Hey! Are we doing this present thing or not?" Avery yelled from the living room.

Zac galloped towards the living room. Seconds later, squeals erupted.

"Zac! Get off of me!"

"You're worse than the dog, Zac!"

"No! Cujo, go away!"

"Go bug Taylor, Cujo! That's right! Go get Taylor!"

If that dog 'go gets Taylor', the world will be one more lab dog closer to discovering the cure for cancer.

"Mom! Dad! Isaac is opening a present!"

"I am not! Don't listen to her!"

"Clarke Isaac, don't you dare go near those presents�" Mom warned, taking her coffee mug into the living room.

"Well�come on, Taylor," Dad said, focusing his camera on me again.

"I think I'm just going to stay here for a little while�" I said, hiding my face from Dad's camera.

"Don't you want to see what Santa brought?"

Only if there's a 6 foot tall box in there. With breathing holes.

"Yeah, I guess," I grumbled, hoisting myself from the table.

Dad's hand resting on my shoulder stopped me.

"Tay," he said, his eyes focusing on mine. "I know that you've been a little�down lately�"

Oh god. Please don't tell me I'm getting a girl talk with Dad. You'd think Christmas would give one immunity from these types of things.

"Dad, I really don't want to talk about this, you know, it's Christmas, and..."

"I completely understand," he said. "I just want you to know that, you know, even though you're grown your mother and I are still here for you to talk to if you ever need to, to,"

"Talk?"

"Yes, to talk, about, anything,"

"Dad, I get it, Dad."

"Walker! Taylor!" Mom called from the living room. "Hurry up!"

"Yeah, my opening fingers are getting itchy!" Jess yelled.

I rolled my eyes.

Dad cleared his throat. "Yes, well, I suppose we should be getting over there, then."

"Taylor, hurry your lazy ass! I still have to call Meagan!"

"Oooh, Zaaac! Is that your new giiirlfrrrriend?"

"No, it's just his new sex toy. Ouch! Mom! That hurt!"

"Watch your mouth, Isaac!"

"Meagan isn't my sex toy, Taylor is the only one who ever had 'sex toys'. Mom! You hit me!"

"Hey, Taylor? Was Blaire your sex toy?" Zoe's voice asked as Dad and I walked in the living room.

"No, she's too good for him," Mac grumbled.

I just love Christmas. Really brings the family together.

"Okay, okay, okay. The whole family is here. Let's open these babies," Jess said, cracking her fingers.

"No, I think we're still missing a few people," Mom said, looking around the living room.

"Unless you and Dad have reproduced in the past few hours, this is everyone," Avery said, glancing at Zac, who was lying on the floor, his head resting on Cujo's chest.

The rest of the family was similarly sprawled around the living room. Isaac was sitting in an armchair, playing with a few loose sprigs of tinsel that had come loose on the tree. Jess was sitting beside the tree, eyeing the stacks of colorfully wrapped boxes, Zoe sitting on her lap. I was nursing my coffee mug in a rocking chair, Mac was sitting on an ottoman at Ike's feet, and Mom, Dad, and Avery shared a couch.

"Isn't Jill coming, sweetie?" Mom asked Ike.

Ike quickly drew his hand away from the stack of presents under the tree and shot Mom a guilty smile.

"I think she's coming a little later."

"So�we can open them now?" Zoe asked hopefully.

Mom sighed. "Go ahead."

A collective "YES!" was yelled throughout the living room as hands were thrust at the tree. I sat in the chair and watched, rocking slowly back and forth. Boxes with my name scrawled on the gift tag were stacked by my feet as Jess handed out packages to the family.

"Let's see, to Mac from Ike, here's one to Zoe from Avery, to Zac from Zoe," Jessica muttered, under her breath.

The room became quiet as everyone opened their gifts from one another and we admired the gifts others had gotten. I soon found myself nodding my head at Ike, who was telling me excitedly about the amp Jess and Avery had pooled together and gotten him.

"Uh huh, that's fascinating, Isaac, it really is."

My eyes wandered around the room, at the look on Zoe's face as she opened a book on cats, to Jess as she tried on her new pair of toe shoes, to Avery who was unwrapping the canvases I had gotten her, to Mom and Dad who were admiring the painting of the two of them Avery had painted, and back to Ike, who was still talking to me.

"I was just reading about these in a magazine, and it said�Tay? Tay, are you listening to me?"

"Oh yeah. You read in a magazine. Go on."

"Hey, Taylor? Can I talk to you in the kitchen for a minute?" Zac asked suddenly, giving up on his struggle to keep Cujo from devouring the wrapping paper.

"Sure." I left Isaac to marvel about the beauties of his amp to himself and followed Zac to the kitchen, taking one last look at his dog consuming red and green striped wrapping paper. That is one weird dog.

"What did you want to talk to me about?" I asked when I got to the kitchen.

Zac was pulling a package from out of a cupboard. "This is your present from me. I didn't know if you'd want to open this in front of anyone else, so I thought I'd give it to you in private."

I took the brown paper package warily. "What is it?"

"Open it and find out."

I shook it slightly and held it to my ear. It doesn't sound like a bomb.

"Will you just open it already!?"

"Okay, okay! Sheesh."

I tore off the paper and let it drop to the floor. I lifted the tissue paper off. I felt my heart plunge to my feet.

It was a framed picture of Blaire and me in our front yard. I had my arms around her waist, and her head was tilted back in laughter.

"You see your expression?" Zac asked softly, circling my face with his finger. "You're totally in love with her, man. You can't deny now. You're staring right at it."

"When did you take this?" I croaked, my voice giving away my facade of calm.

"The night she came to check on Cujo when you came back from showing her the lake behind the house." I could feel him fidgeting beside me. "The sunlight was streaming through the trees perfectly, and you two looked so happy."

He cleared his throat. "Luke got it framed for me. There are a few more pictures of you two in my dark room, because I had to finish the roll, and, are you okay, Tay?"

I nodded, swallowing hard. I couldn't tear my eyes from the picture. It was like a train wreck. You want to look away. You just can't. You're drawn to it.

"I think I'll leave you alone for a minute."

I nodded numbly. As his footsteps disappeared, I stroked Blaire's face under the glass. I hadn't seen her face in what seemed an eternity. Seeing her face felt like when I was five and tried to get a piece of bread out of the toaster with a metal fork. I think my hair stood on end for at least a week.

"Taylor?"

"Huh?" I looked up and saw Mac standing in the doorway, twisting his hands.

"I just wanted to, you know, say I was sorry for yelling at you the other day."

"It's fine. I really am the bastard you said I was." I licked my lips nervously.

"No, you're not." We stood in awkward silence, acknowledging the fact that we could actually be in the same room without stony silence, glares, or killing each other. A major breakthrough in most of my relationships these days.

"What are you looking at?" he asked, walking slowly towards me.

I shrugged. "A picture."

"Can I see it?"

"I guess," I handed it to him shakily.

He studied it for a minute. "Blaire is really pretty."

"I know."

"Why did you dump her?"

Many answers filled my mind. 'Because I was stupid.' 'Because she was a fan, and I didn't think I could handle it.' 'Because I was afraid.' 'Because I felt betrayed.' 'Does it really matter? It's over.'

I answered with the truth.

"I don't know anymore."