Chapter 21 - Basketball

"I am a free man!"

"It’s about time! My gosh I was ready to run over to your house and kidnap you!" Marie gave Zac a huge smile as they met up on the sidewalk in front of her house.

"You would have done that for me?" Zac gave her a goofy grin.

"Well, yeah. You can only play little girly games for so long before you’re ready to kill all your girlfriends."

"Ohh, sounds like fun. What kind of little girly games did you play?" Zac teased.

Marie gently swatted him on the head. "Nothing you’d like. Hey, now that you’re a free man as you put it, I guess you can go horseback riding with me now!"

Zac scrunched his lips and made a face. He had been hoping she’d forgotten that he had promised her he would ride with her sometime. "Oh, yeah.......I guess I can," he replied slowly.

"Cool! I’m going to have my mom call today and set up a day for us to go." Marie smiled triumphantly.

"Great," Zac muttered.

"So, what do you wanna do now? Want to go to the arcade? I have a ton of quarters in my piggy bank," Marie looked at Zac expectantly.

On any normal day, Zac would have jumped at the chance to spend someone else’s quarter’s in the video arcade. However, for some reason, he didn’t want to go play video games. He hadn’t seen Marie in almost six days and for some reason, he wanted to be with her and her alone. He couldn’t quite explain how he felt, even to himself, and now wished more than ever that he had talked to Isaac and Taylor about his situation.

"Ummm, I don’t know. I don’t really feel like going to the arcade."

Marie gave him a surprised glance, her eyes wide. "You? You don’t want to go to the arcade? Are you feeling okay?" she joked.

"Yeah I feel fine. I just thought maybe we could go hang out in the treehouse or something instead, you know, just sort of chill out. It’s kinda hot out."

Marie shrugged. "Okay, well whatever. Let me go ask my mom." She ran inside her house, leaving Zac on the sidewalk with his thoughts.

"She said it was fine, but I have to eat lunch first and do the dishes. How about I just come over to your house in an hour or so? Is that ok?"

Zac smiled. "Yeah, that’s great! I’ll see you in an hour then."

Marie went back inside to have her lunch and Zac headed home, glad to actually have a little bit of time to talk to his brothers before Marie came over.



"Guys, I have a problem." Zac proceeded his statement by dramatically throwing himself onto his bed.

Isaac snickered," Well, we know that Zac, but like we told you before, all the mental hospitals said they were booked."

"I’m serious! Don’t be a jerk." Zac took a deep breath and sighed.

"Geez, you really are being serious, aren’t you?" Taylor looked at Isaac and raised his eyebrows.

"Sorry Zac. So what’s up? What’s the problem?" Isaac tried to read Zac’s face, but his younger brother had shoved his face into a pillow.

"Marie. Marie is my problem." Zac sighed again.

"Marie? I thought you guys were getting along great." Taylor seemed confused.

"We are. That’s the problem."

Isaac and Taylor passed looks that clearly read "huh?". "Why is the fact that you guys are getting along great a problem?"

Zac didn’t say anything.

Taylor stared at him. "HELLO!! What’s the problem?"

"I want more...." Zac trailed off.

Now Isaac and Taylor were genuinely confused. "Want more what?"

"Well, geez, how do I say this.........Marie, she......no. Okay, I want for......hmm."

"Zac, spit it out! What in the heck is up with you?" Isaac was ready to grab Zac and give him a good hard shake.

"Well, like Doctor for instance."

"Doctor, what the hell is Doctor?" Taylor had a look of total confusion on his face.

Zac turned red. "Well, Doctor is........oh man.........okay, remember that day it was raining, and Marie and I were in the bedroom and you came in......that was Doctor."

"Okay.......Doctor....nope still not following you." Taylor looked expectantly at Zac.

"When you saw me kissing her, that was Doctor. We weren’t making out, we were playing a game. Marie made it up and calls it Doctor. She tells me what "hurts" and I kiss it and make it better."

Well, this information was just too much for Taylor and Isaac. They both burst out laughing.

Zac frowned. "Forget it, just forget it." He stood and tried to walk out of the room.

Isaac grabbed his arm and pulled him back. "Look, we’re sorry, okay." He gave Taylor a pointed look and Taylor quickly stopped laughing. "Just finish telling us the problem."

Sighing, Zac sat back down on his bed. He lowered his eyes, and nervously rubbed his hands together. "All right. The problem is this. I almost told her I loved her. But I’m only 11, I can’t be in love.....can I? I......I just get so confused when I’m around her, and I don’t know what to do. And it’s like, now all I can think about is doing more...."

"What do you mean doing more?" Isaac waited as Zac stumbled over his words.

"I don’t know, I just..... want to do more with her. Not like, I don’t know.....do IT, or anything like that, but I mean........it’s like........I want to do more than just kiss and hold hands and stuff."

"Whoa, wait a minute there Zac. This is defiantly not what I was expecting you to say. You gotta remember, like you said before, you are only 11, and for that age, kissing and holding hands is all you should be doing. Don’t think that you have to catch up to Taylor and me. When you’re older, you can try some other stuff, but for now, just stick with the kissing." Isaac was dead serious.

"Yeah, I know, but I have all these feelings when I’m with her. It’s so weird. I get all tingly and want to smile and I probably look like the biggest idiot when I’m with her cause all I do is grin."

"Well all that’s OK, it means you like her. That’s the way it feels. If she makes you happy who cares how stupid you look. Girls are gonna do all sorts of things to drive you crazy. Like.........like never wear their hair down, so that all you can think of when you’re with her is of pulling that pony tail holder out and touching her hair. Or always wear such big clothes that you just wish she would wear a tight shirt and a skirt or something, cause it’s driving you crazy. You need to see her, but she won’t let you." Taylor sighed.

Zac gave Taylor a weird look. "Marie doesn’t do any of that stuff."

"I know, I was talking about Gretchen. I’m telling you guys, the girl drives me insane. Sometimes I get so mad at her cause she says stupid things, and I’m like, why did you just say that. Then the next minute I can’t stand to not be touching her, but she won’t let me. God, she is so frustrating."

"Zac, the point we’re attempting to reach is," Isaac looked at Taylor who was still deep in thought and shook his head. "The point we’re getting at is that it’s good to have these feelings. But you have to remember that girls are a lot different than boys. So Marie may have these feelings too, but she is going to find other ways to express them. You have to be careful with her, with any girl. They know, even if it at times seems like they don’t, they know what they want. And all they ask is that you are there for them. So, go slow. One day she’s going to want to do the things you do. Until then you’re just gonna have to wait. Did mom and dad ever talk to you about......" Isaac felt very stupid even bringing this up, but figured it was now or never. "......about that sex stuff.........like.....you know....master....."

"Oh my God! Please tell me we aren’t talking about this!" Zac turned an even darker shade of red and buried his head under his pillows.

"Well," Isaac stood up and stretched. "It’s a natural......"

Zac held his hand up. "Please! I get the picture.......augh.....and it’s completely grossing me out."

Isaac just laughed at Zac, and sat back down, returning his attention to his writing.

Zac lay, his head still buried under the pillows, thinking. Suddenly he sat up. "Hey guys?"

"Now what?" Taylor asked. "Why is it every time I play this game I lose?" He disgustedly flipped off the computer and pouted.

"Well Tay. Could be because you suck at it," Isaac replied helpfully.

"Shut up," Taylor grumbled.

"GUYS!"

"Geez, Zac, you don’t have to yell. What?"

"I yelled because you weren’t paying attention to me, like always." Zac snapped.

"All right, sorry. What did you want to say?"

"What’s it like?"

"Ummm......what is what like?" Isaac was once again confused by his younger brother’s line of questioning.
"Kissing.......with tongues. Is it cool? Do you think I would like it?"

"Wait." Isaac held up his hand. "Number one, I thought you had already tried it, and number two, why were you saying you want to do more if you haven’t even really kissed Marie yet."

"I have really kissed her. Just not, you know, like that. Which is why I am asking if you think I will like it."

"Yeah, you probably would, Zacky. I mean I don’t know anyone who doesn’t." Isaac smiled at his brother.

"Hmmm.........do you think Marie would mind if I kissed her like that?"

Taylor snorted. "If she let’s you kiss her stomach," he paused. "And who knows where else.....I’m quite sure she won’t care if you stick your tongue in her mouth. Just be careful she doesn’t hit you."

"Why would she hit me?" Zac was confused. Taylor still had never told him about the whole closet incident.

"Some girls don’t like for guys to do that sort of thing. Why I don’t know, but hey."

Zac pondered over all the information he had received, and sighed. "You guys haven’t helped me at all. I’m still confused. I’ll just figure it out for myself." With that he climbed off the bed, and slowly left the room.

Taylor just looked at Isaac and shrugged his shoulders. "That kid makes no sense," he stated.



Taylor scratched his arm absently as he stood on the front steps of the Halloran home, waiting for Gretchen to answer the door.

Finally the large, French doors were opened, and Gretchen stood in the doorway. "Hi Taylor," she said.

Taylor looked her over. She had on her typical baggy jeans and tee shirt, and her hair was in a sloppy ponytail. "Hey, you ready?"

"Yeah," Gretchen stepped outside. "Man, it is really hot out isn’t it?" She walked the length of the porch and leaned against the railing, inhaling the muggy, humid air.

"Sure is, ‘sposed to get even hotter. My mom told me it's supposed to be our hottest spring in fifty years," Taylor told her, joining her at the end of the porch.

"Hmm, I don’t know if I feel like walking anywhere. You want to just hang out here?"

Taylor gave her a surprised look. "What about your mom? Won’t she get mad at you?"

"Well, we’ll just stay outside. Besides if you leave before she comes home, we won’t have a problem." Gretchen smiled at him.

"Wow, I can’t believe these words are coming out of your mouth," Taylor said, astonished.

"Well I am fourteen you know. My mom treats me like I’m a baby. I finally told her that we were friends..."

Taylor frowned when she said the word "friends".

"...and she was all uptight about it, asking where you live, who your other friends are ect ect...." Gretchen trailed off.

"Well, parents are like that I guess," Taylor replied softly. He gazed into the sky, watching a flock of birds drift by overhead. "Hey, you have a basketball net. Want to play a few rounds before it gets any hotter?"

Gretchen smiled. "Sure why not."



"Ike! Juliet is here!"

Isaac frowned. Was she supposed to come over today? Noooo, she was not, he answered his own thought. I wonder why she’s here.

On any normal day, Isaac would have been thrilled that Juliet had come over. Today however he was to busy thinking about his date with Claire. He had finally called her about two days after the accident and asked her out. Isaac had been feeling fine about going out with Claire, until his mom had called out saying Juliet was over. Now he was feeling enormous pangs of guilt. Slowly he trudged down the stairs, and tried to put on a big smile when he saw Juliet standing in the living room.

"Hey!" She flashed him a warm smile.

God she looks beautiful. What am I doing? Why am I going out on a date with another girl when I have a great, caring, sweet, pretty girlfriend. Because you’re a jerk, that’s why.

"Ike?"

"Huh?" Isaac snapped himself out of his thoughts and stared blankly at Juliet.

Juliet’s smile had faded and was replaced with concern. "Are you okay? Is this a bad time?"

"Oh, no no, not at all. I umm, I just sort of spaced there for a second. Sorry."

Juliet’s smile returned. "Good. Listen I just stopped by and thought we could go for a walk or something. It’s beautiful out. Kinda hot, but once you get used to it, it isn’t so bad."

Isaac glanced at his watch. He was meeting Claire in two hours. "Umm, sure, why not," he answered. "Just let me grab my shoes."

Racing up the stairs, the thought of calling Claire and canceling their date crossed his mind. Then he and Juliet could spend the day together. However as he thought about Claire's long blond hair, her baby blue eyes, her personality which he had found out from their phone conversation, was a lot like his, he made up his mind. I’ll just go out with her this one time. No harm in going out as friends one time. It’s not like we’re going to do anything.

Smiling, Isaac made his way back down the stairs where Juliet waited. "Let’s go," he said cheerfully, and grabbing Juliet’s hand, he walked out the door.



Taylor and Gretchen sat next to each other sharing a bottle of water, and taking a breather from their one on one basketball game. So far Taylor was ahead by three. However, he had grown sick of shooting hoops.

Gretchen was talking about some sports team or another, which had just traded away some player, but Taylor was paying no attention to her words. He watched as a few drops of sweat were sliding down her cheek, and how a few sections of her hair had come loose from the ponytail holder and were sticking to her face.

Taylor didn’t think she was going to shut up anytime soon. Gretchen was quiet as could be until you got her started on a topic she liked, then she could yap for hours on end. He was getting bored so he decided to venture a move. Taylor leaned over and gently moved the strands of hair sticking to her face, and lightly kissed her cheek, waiting to see how she would react. Gretchen pretended not to notice and continued to blab.

Taylor rolled his eyes. Gretchen turned to face him, still talking about basketball. Taylor seized the moment and kissed her on the lips as she was in the middle of saying Michael Jordan’s name. She pulled away and gave him a look. He couldn’t quite read whether the look she gave said ‘don’t kiss me again’ or ‘kiss me again’. He chose the latter, and kissed her again, but realized she was not responding in any way. She sat there motion less while he kissed her. Finally Taylor stopped and looked at her, a hurt look on his face, wondering what he was doing wrong.

"So.......are you ready to play again?" Gretchen grabbed the basketball and stood up.

"Gretchen," Taylor said, grabbing the back of her shirt and attempting to pull her down next to him.

"What?" She sighed and sat back down.

"Don’t be like this," he whispered, resting his head on her shoulder and nuzzled his face in her neck, kissing her softly.

"Well what do you want me to be like? I don’t really understand what more you want from me." she stated, hoping that he would move his face away from her neck.

"I want you to give me some indication that you like me!" Taylor looked directly into her brown eyes.

"I just let you kiss me, didn’t I. Isn’t that enough?"

"No, it isn’t enough! I want......when I kiss you......for you to kiss me back. You just sit there. It’s like I’m kissing a corpse or something."

"That’s gross." She sighed. "Taylor, I don’t understand."

"What’s not to understand, you don’t make any sense!"

"Why......." Gretchen began.

"Why what?"

"Why do you even want to kiss me?"

"Why wouldn’t I?" He looked at her wide eyed, caught slightly off guard with that question. "I really like you Gretchen, let me show you."

Taylor leaned over and kissed her lips again, but she still just sat there. Taylor began to get very frustrated with Gretchen’s little shy ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’ routine.

"Come on, let’s go inside," he grabbed her hand.

"What about the basketball game?"

"We’ll finish it later," he said, walking her over to the door.



Zac and Marie sat in the tree house on the Hanson’s property. Marie was attempting to keep Zac’s interest in "Little House on the Prarie", one of her favorite books. She was reading aloud to him. Zac, not very interested in the covered wagon, could not stop thinking about what he and his brothers had talked about that morning.

"Zac, you’re not even paying attention to me," Marie complained.

"It’s just," Zac leaned over and gave her a quick kiss. "I don’t really care about Laura and Mary. . I’ve built up deep resentment towards the whole Ingalls family. My mom used to make me watch the show when I was younger. So I already know Mary goes blind and stuff."

Marie’s face fell. "Sorry. This is my favorite book, so I thought that maybe you would like it too."

Zac felt awful. "I do like it," he lied. "It’s just......I’d rather be doing other things."

"Like what?"

Zac looked at her and figured it was now or never. He had might as well try it. He leaned over and kissed Marie on the lips. He opened his mouth a little and slammed his tongue against her lips.

"Zac, what are you doing?"

"Wait, just let me try something," Zac pleaded and kissed her again.

After Marie got over the initial shock, she relaxed and let Zac kiss her. Zac slowly put his tongue into the front portion of her mouth. He felt her teeth, the roof of her mouth, and finally the tip of her tongue. When he had finished, he just sat back and looked at her.

"Hmm, interesting. Not quite how I pictured it. I guess we’ll have to work on that."

"What?" Marie looked at him confused. "What exactly do you think we need to work on?"

"Well, umm, our French kissing of course. What do you think that was?"

Marie just stared at him. Finally she said, "I wonder why they call it that."

"Because that’s the way people in France kiss," Zac all knowingly answered. "And I’m going to be going there you know, so..."

Marie interrupted. "You had better not be kissing any girls while you’re over there!"

"No dummy, I just wanted to have something to talk about, especially since I don’t know French."

"Oh, you think they actually talk about it?" She asked

"How should I know, I’m just taking a stab in the dark here."

Marie just sighed. "Well, now that you got that out of your system, do you mind if I read some more of the story?"

Zac matched her sigh, leaned against the wall of the tree house, and replied, "I guess not, go ahead."



"So, what do you want to do? We could watch T.V. or something," Gretchen asked after they stepped into her house.

"Let me see your bedroom," Taylor suggested.

"I don’t know. If my mom found out........" She trailed off when she saw him pouting. "Okay," She sighed.

Gretchen led him down the hallway, opened the door, stepped in and stated, "Well here it is. There isn’t much to look at."

"Sure there is," Taylor said. closing the door behind him.

Taylor walked over to Gretchen, put his arms around her waist, and pulled her close to him.

"Look at me," he whispered.

He softly touched his lips to hers. Suddenly he pulled away.

"Here," he said, grabbing her arms and placing them around his neck. He then took her around the waist again. "Now, this time when I kiss you, move your lips. It’s really easy," he softly instructed. Taylor gently brought his lips to hers once again. This time he felt her tentivily respond a little.

"That’s it," he whispered and kissed her again.

After a few moments of gentle kisses, Taylor pulled away and gave Gretchen a stern look. "Okay, now if I try something you’re not going to hit me are you?" he asked remembering all to well the first time he tried this in the closet at his party.

"That depends on what it is."

"This," he said as he pressed his lips against hers again. He parted his lips, and was actually surprised that she parted hers slightly as well. Once he had her mouth opened a little, he slid his tongue inside. He felt her tense up, so he held her tighter, making sure she didn’t pull away.

Finally he broke away from her. "Now, that wasn’t so bad, was it?"

"I guess not," she muttered, still not sure if she liked the whole situation.

"Let’s go sit on your bed."

Gretchen, not quite sure what to expect, followed, and sat on her plaid comforter next to Taylor.

Taylor reached over and pulled the scrunchie out of her hair. Her brown locks fell in every direction. He ran his hand over her hair, smoothing it down. Gently, he kissed her forehead, nose, and then her lips. She began to put her arm around his neck, but thought better of it, and dropped it to her side again.

"No, it’s okay," he whispered, putting her arms around his neck again. They sat staring into each other’s eyes.

"Why don’t you lay down?" Taylor suggested.

Gretchen crinkled her brow and asked, "You’re not going to try anything funny are you?"

Taylor threw his hands into the air. "Of course not! I swear......I promise."

"Okay, but just remember, if I don’t like what you’re doing, I will hit you."

"I know, believe me I know."

Gretchen laid down on the bed, her legs still resting on the floor.

Taylor looked at her position. "Are you comfortable? Here," he gently grabbed her legs and moved them so that she was lying prone on the bed.

Slowly, not wanting to get slapped, Taylor laid himself on top of her.
"Maybe we should take off our shoes," Gretchen suggested.

Taylor got up rolling his eyes, knowing that Gretchen was just trying to prolong things.

He untied her sneakers and tossed them on the floor, then tossed his down next to hers.

"There, no more shoes."

Taylor laid back down on her and stroked her face with the back of his hand. He began to kiss her again. He tried to make each kiss last longer than the one before. His heart skipped a beat when he finally felt her tongue enter his mouth. Thankful that she didn’t seem to mind this, and hadn’t made any moves to hit him, he figured he would try the next step.

Taylor gently kissed her neck and placed one of his hands on top of her tee shirt. He slowly moved it up and rested it on top of her breasts, caressing her.

"Ummmm, Taylor? What are you doing?" Gretchen quietly asked.

Instead of answering her question, Taylor pressed his lips to hers, hoping to stop her from talking.

He slowly started to put his hand under her shirt. Gretchen tensed, and tried to push him off. He quickly withdrew his hand.

"What’s the matter?" he asked.

"Can you......" she took a deep breath. "Just on the outside, okay? I mean......"

"Sure," Taylor whispered. He ran his hand up and down her leg, while looking into her eyes. He was caught completely off guard when she raised her lips to his. He began to kiss her back, but Gretchen soon moved her lips down his cheek, to his neck.

Taylor slid his hand to the inside of her leg, as her light pecks became deeper and lasted longer.

His breathing got heavier and he reached down and clasped on of Gretchen’s wrists. He slowly began to move her hand in between his legs. She quickly jerked her hand away.

"Oh, come on, please......just for a minute," Taylor almost silently moaned.

Gretchen took a few seconds to think about this as Taylor nuzzled her neck.

"Just for a minute," she sternly warned.

Taylor slowly replaced her hand to where she had pulled it from. Gretchen felt him begin to move against her hand. He stiffened and lightly moaned, his sound muffled because he buried his face into her neck.

"Okay, I think that’s enough of that," Gretchen said, taking her hand away. "As a matter of fact..." Taylor pressed his lips against hers before she could finish the sentence which he was quite sure he didn’t want to hear.

"Gretchen!" A woman’s voice came through the door. "Are you in there?"

Taylor sat up and stared at Gretchen wide eyed. Oh my God, he mouthed.

"Get off of me," she mouthed back.

Taylor quickly jumped onto the floor crawling halfway across the room, and Gretchen sat up on the bed, just as her mother opened the door.

Mrs. Halloran didn’t quite know what to make of this scene, finding two sweaty, red faced children behind a closed bedroom door.

"What were you two doing in here? And uhh, who are you anyway?" she asked.

"Mom, this is Taylor Hanson. Taylor, this is my mom, Mrs. Halloran. And we were......ummm..."

"Playing basketball," Taylor chimed in.

"In your bedroom?" Mrs. Halloran looked at them.

"No, outside. We just came in to take a breather and listen to some music," Gretchen said the first thing that came to her mind.

"Oh," Mrs. Halloran glanced over at the silent stereo. "Well it was nice to meet you Taylor, but Gretchen had some chores she has to do now."

"Okay," Taylor replied, getting the hint. He grabbed his shoes.

Mrs. Halloran continued to eye him as he put his shoes on and tied the laces.

"Well, I guess I’ll see you later, Gretchen. It was nice to meet you Mrs. Halloran," he attempted an innocent smile and held out his hand.

As Mrs. Halloran shook his hand, Taylor had a sneaking suspicion she was not buying the basketball story. Aside from the silent radio, both of them looked rumpled. Not to mention Gretchen’s normally perfectly made bed, was in disarray. He just prayed that Gretchen’s mom didn’t call his mom and dad. He didn’t think he could stand to get another sex lecture from his parents.

.

Chapter 22 - Guilt

"Look, see. There it is again. He does it in every photo."

"You’re right! How come I never noticed it before? That is really weird."

"What’s really weird?" Isaac was standing in the doorway of the dining room, giving his family, who were hunched over the table, a questioning look.

"Where’d you come from? You startled me," Mrs. Hanson stated.

"Juliet and I just got back from our walk. What are you guys doing? And what is really weird?" Isaac’s curiosity was getting the better of him. He walked towards the table, and giving Zac a shove, pushed his way into the group.

"Watch it bub. There’s enough room for all of us," Zac informed his brother, giving Isaac a shove back.

Taking no notice of Zac, Isaac shuffled through the stack of photos spread out on the table. "These are from that photo shoot we did a little while back, aren’t they? Sheesh, took ‘em long enough to send them. hey Jul, come look at these."

"Don’t you notice something strange about the photos?" Taylor questioned his older brother.

Isaac looked carefully at the array of pictures. "Well, other than the lighting makes our hair look really really dark....no. Nothing is standing out to much."

"Juliet, see if you notice what we’re talking about," Zac said.

Juliet glanced at each photo carefully. "Wow, hey Ike. Are you aware you’re squinting in every photo?" She asked.

"Bingo! That’s what we noticed. Isn’t that weird? It’s in every photo. And it’s just the left eye. L always knew Ike had a lazy eye, but these photos make it really stand out." Taylor laughed.

"I do not! Let me see those!" Isaac grabbed the pile of photos up disgustedly and scrutinized each one carefully. After sorting through the pile three times, he threw the photos back onto the table. "Yeah, so what if I did squint in all of them," he muttered. Walking out of the dining room he announced over his shoulder. "I’m going to change. I have to be somewhere in an hour." With that Isaac stalked off towards the stairs.

"Aww, you guys!" Juliet tried to hold in her laughter. "We ticked him off."

"Well geez, he’s sure Mr. Sensitive today. Like no one was gonna notice he has one eye open and one eye closed in all the pictures. I wonder if they’re gonna use these?" Taylor pondered over that for a moment. His trance however was broken by slamming noises coming from the boy’s bedroom.

Juliet couldn’t contain herself. Laughing she said, "Maybe I should go talk to him."

"Yeah, really," Zac agreed. "Tell him to stop being such a dork. It’s just pictures. We weren’t really making fun of him or anything."

"Yes we were," Taylor laughed.

"All right, so we were, but, well, he should learn how to take a joke!"

"I’m going to go talk to him," Juliet said again, and headed for the bedroom.



"Ike?" Juliet lightly knocked on the bedroom door.

"What?" Was Isaac’s snappy reply.

"Can I come in a minute?"

Isaac sighed. "Yeah," he said, much softer this time. "Come on in."

Juliet opened the door and stepped inside the messy room. "Looks nice. How do you guys find anything in this mess?"

Isaac just glanced at her before resuming his hunt for one of his Doc Marten boots. He had one in his hand, however the other was being elusive.

"You look nice," Juliet offered, giving Isaac’s tan chinos and dark blue polo shirt the once over. "Where are you going?"

Isaac’s heart skipped a beat. "Umm, you uhh, you remember David Piper?"

Juliet thought for a minute. "No, can’t say that I do. Why?"

"Well, uhh. He used to live here. Then his family, they umm. They moved away. To umm, Maine. yeah, Maine. Well, anyway, umm, he called and uhh, asked if I wanted to get together."

Juliet gave Isaac an odd glance. "In Maine?"

"What?"

"You just said he lives in Maine."

"Ohh, no. Well yeah, he does live in Maine. But he’s here. To visit. So we’re gonna hang out together. You know, sort of a guys night out or whatever." Isaac dropped his glance. He couldn’t stand to look Juliet in the face as he lied to her.

"I see. Boy’s night out." Juliet smiled and walked closer to Isaac. "That’s too bad, I guess." She wrapped her arms around his waist and lightly pecked his chin.

"Why do you say that?" Isaac looked into Juliet’s dark eyes, and felt himself melt.

"Well, boy’s night out means that I am going to be sitting home. All alone. All by myself." Juliet gave Isaac a teasing smile.

"Where’s your family going to be?"

"Ohh, I don’t know. Out. I didn’t want to go. Figured I’d just sit at home, maybe invite a friend over, something like that."

Isaac trembled at the thought. "Well, I shouldn’t be out to late. I mean, I could stop over later," he said, hopefulness in his voice.

"Well," Juliet waved one of her hands in the air. "Whatever."

Isaac grabbed her hand and lightly kissed her wrist, working his way slowly up her arm. "I’ll stop over later," he whispered in her ear. Then, brushing his lips along her cheek, they lightly met her mouth.

"Man, why is it every time I open this door, I either run into you guys talking about girls, or making out with them?" Zac asked no one in particular as he nearly walked smack into Isaac and Juliet.

Juliet broke away from Isaac and laughed. "Umm, how often do you guys bring girls up to your room? Especially you?" She poked Isaac in the stomach.

"I don’t bring any girls into my room. Period. Someone is just exaggerating." Isaac glared at Zac.

"Ohh, you don’t bring girls up here. Then what am I?" Juliet laughed as Isaac stumbled over his words.

"I meant, anyone but you. I only bring you here, I mean. You know what I mean!" Isaac finally replied, exasperated.

"I know what you meant. I just like to torture you."

"Yeah, I know. If you aren’t slapping me and beating me up, you’re making fun of my lazy eye, or the fact that I can’t speak German, or.."

Isaac trailed off when Juliet’s lips pressed against his again. "Now, be quiet you big baby," she said when they pulled apart. "I’m going home. you have fun tonight, okay?"

Isaac’s smile faded as he remembered he was meeting Claire in less than an hour. "I will," he guiltily mumbled.

"Bye Zac, I’ll see you guys later." With that, Juliet let herself out.

"Where are you going anyway?" Taylor asked, stepping into the room. "Oh man! Oww!" Having failed to notice the pile of legos Zac had scattered on the floor, Taylor got a bare foot full of the sharp plastic pieces. Hopping over to his bed, he groaned, "Zac! Why do you always have to have those things all over the darn floor? I am really gonna kill myself one of these days."

"Well, Tay, darn it. You’ve figured out my plan. My intentions were to in fact, kill you. Now that you know my master plan, I’ll have to devise a new plot in order to get the good bed." Zac replied rolling his eyes.

"Oh, please tell me we aren’t having this stupid conversation again," Taylor moaned.

Isaac watched as his two brother’s seemed to forget he was in the room while they argued once again about who had the best bed in the room. He tried to sneak past them out the door when he was halted by Taylor.

"IKE! Where ya going?" Taylor gave Isaac an expectant look.

"Umm, out the door," Isaac replied, once again trying to slip out of the room.

"Very funny, really. Your quick wit astounds me. But seriously, where are you going?" Taylor continued to briskly rub his sore foot while waiting for Isaac to answer.

"I’m gonna meet up with someone, somewhere."

Taylor sighed. "You really suck, you know that? Just tell us. What, do you think we’re gonna blab it to everyone?" Zac and Taylor gave Isaac huge smiles, attempting to show their sincerity.

Isaac just rolled his eyes. "Yes, I do. I’ll tell you guys later, okay? I really have to go now."

"You know, this better not turn out to be another secret like the last time," Taylor suddenly said, accusingly. "I better not find out that you’re going out with Gretchen behind my back or something, or I will seriously have to hurt you."

Isaac laughed. "I give you my word. I am most defiantly not going out with Gretchen. Now if you guys will excuse me, I’m going to be late."

"Fine, " Taylor grumbled. "Buy you better give us the scoop the minute you come home."

Isaac made an "X" over his heart. "I swear I will tell you everything." Then, shaking his head, he left the room, heading down the stairs.



"DAD! I’m taking the car!" Isaac called as he grabbed the sedan’s keys from the key rack.

"Whoa, wait a minute there. Who said you could take the car?" Mr. Hanson joined his son in the hallway.

"Dad, come on. You said I could yesterday, remember?"

"Hmm, I don’t really remember that, no." Mr. Hanson tried to hide his smile.

"Dad, you’re not very funny," Isaac grumbled.

"Oh, well so sorry. Yes, you may take the car. But you better be back here by 11 o’clock sharp mister. Tell David I said hello."

"Yeah, I will," Isaac said, feeling another stab of guilt. He hated lying to Juliet, and now here he was lying to his family about a girl.......again. He sighed. Why do girls make everything so darn difficult, he thought.



"Hey, Zac! Guess what?"

Zac scrunched his face. Whenever Marie sounded this happy something was defiantly up.

"What," he slowly said into the phone.

"My mom set up a trail ride for us tomorrow."

"A what?"

"Silly, you know. Horses. You said you would go riding with me, remember? Well my mom set it up and we can go tomorrow. She is going to pay for both of us. Cool, huh?"

"Yeah, that’s great," Zac sighed. "Great, just great."

"Oh please, try not to sound to enthusiastic about it," Marie said sarcastically.

"Oh no, I’m excited all right. You betcha, can’t wait to go, yup, yup."

"Zac, if you don’t want to go then don’t, all right? I just really wanted to share this with you. But if you’re gonna be like that, then you know, don’t go."

"Marie, I’m sorry. I do want to go. I’ve just never done it before, so I’m a little, well, just a little bit..."

"Scared?"

"NO! Absolutely not scared. Not me, just you know, unsure. But it doesn’t matter. I’ll get to be with you so it will be fun no matter what we do."

"Aww, that’s so sweet."

"Yeah, yeah, I know." Zac blushed.

"All right. Be at my house by noon tomorrow, my mom will drop us off and pick us up, okay?"

"Sounds good, I guess I’ll see ya then." Zac replaced the phone to it’s cradle. Oh man, he thought. I am not gonna like this. Not one little bit.

"Why the look, Zac?" Taylor asked when he saw the perplexed expression of his brother.

"Ohh, just Marie has been begging me to go horseback riding with her and she wants me to go tomorrow. But I’ve never, you know, really been on a horse before."

"Sure you have, at Aunt Connie and Uncle John’s remember?"

"Oh sure, when I was like four. And that was on Millie, who was what, two feet tall? This is gonna be a real horse, that I’ll have to ride by myself."

"Don’t worry about it Zac. Those horses are used to having people who don’t know how to ride on them. You’ll be fine, trust me."

"I sure hope so," was all Zac said.

Taylor snickered. "I can’t believe you’re afraid to ride a horse."

"I’m not afraid, Tay. Just......" Zac frowned when he saw Taylor laughing at him. "Okay fine, so I’m afraid, all right? Are you happy? You got me to admit it! I sure hope you’re satisfied." With that Zac stomped out of the room, leaving Taylor in stitches.



Isaac pushed the doorbell at Claire’s house harder, but still didn’t hear anything. "Is this stupid thing broken?" he wondered aloud.

"No, it isn’t broken," a voice said from behind him.

Isaac whirled around and found himself face to face with Claire. His jaw dropped, and he quickly closed it, eyes wide as he took her in.

Claire smiled. "Glad to see I meet your approval," she said, making a small turn on the sidewalk.

"You look.........wow. You look incredible," Isaac breathed.

"You don’t look so bad yourself. Now come on in. Nana cant’ wait to meet you." Claire grabbed Isaac’s arm, and pulled him around to the side of the house.

"Sorry about ringing the doorbell so hard. I didn’t hear it go off inside."

"That’s because it doesn’t make any noise."

Isaac frowned. "So what’s the point of having it then?"

"Well," Claire explained. "Nana is deaf. So whenever someone rings the doorbell, instead of making a noise, it lights up a small bulb in each room so that she knows someone is at the door."

"Ohh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know she was deaf."

"Well, how could you silly? I hadn’t told you till just now." Claire flashed another killer smile at Isaac.

Just friends, he reminded himself. You’re just going to be friends.

As Claire led him inside, he gazed around the small, cozy home.

"Wait here," Claire instructed Isaac, then left him standing in the living room.

Spotting a bunch of photos on top of a table, Isaac wandered over and looked at each of them. There were a lot of photos of Claire when she was little, a man and woman were with her in some. Her parents, Isaac assumed.

"Isaac?"

Isaac turned around and saw that Claire had her grandmother with her.

"Isaac, this is my grandmother, Emilla Barrett. I call her Nana though."

"Nice to meet you Mrs. Barrett," Isaac replied, holding out his hand.

"You have to look at her when you talk Isaac. Unless you know sign language, the only way she’ll understand you is to read your lips." Claire reminded him.

"Oh yeah, sorry."

"Nana, this is Isaac Hanson."

Isaac watched in amazement as Claire effortlessly signed to her grandmother. Nana signed something back and Isaac glanced at Claire, waiting for a translation.

"She said you seem to be very nice and are very handsome," Claire informed him, smiling.

"Isaac blushed. "Thanks," he said, hoping Mrs. Barrett could read his lips clearly.

"She also says she recognizes you from somewhere. I told her that she has probably seen you on TV before."

Isaac gave Claire a thoughtful look. "I wasn’t sure if you knew who I was," he said.

"Well, at first I didn’t, but then when I told a friend of mine about you , she got all excited. But before you even say it, that is not why I am going out with you."

Relief flooded through Isaac. "Good, I’m glad to hear that."

Claire made a few more gestures to her grandmother, then said, "All right, let’s go."

Isaac waved goodbye to Nana, and said, "Nice to have met you."

Nana smiled, and waved back, making a grunting noise.

"That’s how she says goodbye," Claire told Isaac when she saw his confused look. "She makes noises."

"Oh, okay. I’ll remember that." Isaac said as they left the house. He led Claire over to the car, and opened the passenger side door for her.

"Thanks, I guess chivalry isn’t dead after all."

Isaac grinned, hurried around to the driver’s side, and hopped in, turning to look at Claire.

"So, where are you taking me? You never said on the phone," Claire asked.

"Ever heard of Polara?"

Claire gave Isaac a confused look. "No, what is it?"

"Oh wow, it’s just amazing. It’s this beautiful restaurant downtown. Has a spectacular view of the city. Plays great jazz music. I know you’ll love it."

Claire smiled. "It sounds wonderful."

"It is. I love it there." Isaac started the car, and they drove off, heading towards downtown Tulsa.



About midway through dinner, Isaac asked Claire a question that had been burning in his mind. "So, you said your parents live in Toronto, right? How come you live in Tulsa with your grandmother then?"

Claire set her fork down and gently wiped her mouth with her napkin. "Well. My parents and I, it’s not that we don’t get along. But they’re sort of all sucked up in their little corporate world. My dad’s a lawyer for big shot hockey stars and my mom is a sponser for the Toronto Maple Leafs, so they were always gone, running across Canada for this that and the other. So you know, I got left home a lot with the baby sitters, and people like that. Well, when my grandpa, Nana’s husband died, we figured that someone needed to be with her. Since all of our family lives in Canada, no one was to quick to volunteer to move to the U.S. I was fourteen at the time, so I said, since my parents are never home anyway, I’m really the only person in my family who bothered to learn sign language, and since I don’t have to worry about leaving a job, why didn’t I come live with her. I could go to school just as eaisly here as I did in Canada. At first my parents protested, saying who would take care of me, ect. But I reminded them that Nana isn’t invalid, just deaf. She only needs help with a few simple things like shopping and that, and since we’ve always been close, I knew Nana would love the idea. And I was right. So after a lot of convincing I moved down here to be with her. I’m a lot happier this way."

"Wow, you moved away from home at fourteen? I don’t think I could do that." Isaac said, amazed.

"Well, Isaac you have to remember, my parents are never home, and Nana is my family, so I mean, it’s not like I really left home. Just went to another one. Besides, I like Toronto, but Tulsa is much nicer. You know, smaller, quieter. I really love it here."

Isaac smiled. "I’m glad."

Glancing around at the Polara once again, Claire stated, "This place is amazing."

Isaac smiled. "I know. I’m glad I got to share it with you." As he said the words, his smile faded. Juliet crossed his mind, again. As much fun as he and Claire had had during dinner, Isaac couldn’t keep his thoughts off of Juliet. The words, why am I doing this to her played in his mind over and over, but then he would catch a glance of Claire, and think about how he was totally attracted to her, and desperatly wanted to be with her as well.

"Hey, you okay?" Claire was staring at Isaac who had been lost in his thoughts.

"Oh yeah, I was just sort of listening to this music. It’s great isn’t it?"

"Yeah, it is. You know, that’s something I like about you Isaac."

"What’s that?"

"Well, on the way here we listened to Van Morrison. I absolutly love Van Morrison, but most guys your age think he’s related to Van Halen or something. I was really glad I didn’t have to hear anything like rap or hard rock. Then you bring me to this gorgeous restaurant and all they play is mello jazz, and you love it. I didn’t really think guys like you existed anymore."

"Guys like me?"

"Guys who, I don’t know, appreciate the beauty of good music, beautiful scenery. I mean, the way you were so excited about being able to see the sun set from our seats, was just so sweet." Claire blushed and looked down at her lap. "Sorry, I’m sort of babbling aren’t I?"

Isaac smiled. "No, I like it." A new song began and Isaac noticed quite a few couples on the dance floor. "Hey, Claire? Would you dance with me?"

"I thought you’d never ask."

Isaac stood and offered Claire his hand. She took it, and let him lead her to the dance floor. When they reached the floor, Isaac took Claire in his arms, and held her close. She loosly wrapped her arms around his neck, and they swayed together in time with the music. As Isaac felt Claire against him, he shivered. He could smell her peach shampoo and ivory soap. He inhaled deeply, taking her scent in. Neither of them heard the song end, until they realized that a fast number had started and they were getting bumped into. They both smiled at each other, and Isaac led Claire back to their seats.

"I want you to know I’m having a wonderful time tonight," Isaac said.

"Me too."

"There is one thing you should know though."

"What?"

"Umm," Isaac desperatly wanted to come clean with Claire, but couldn’t bring himself to do it.

"What is it Isaac?" Claire looked at him expectantly.

"Oh, just, well the band. We’re leaving in about a week for Europe. We’re going to England, France and Germany. We’re not sure quite how long we’re going to be gone. I think they said almost a month though. I just thought I should tell you that now, so you know....." Isaac trailed off.

"Oh, well okay, I’m glad you told me."

Isaac could see the disapointment in her eyes.

"I’m really sorry. But I am coming back you know," he added with a smile.

"Good, because I really want to get to know you Isaac Hanson."



"Hello?"

"Umm, yeah, hi. Is Gretchen there?"

"Who is this?"

"This is Taylor."

"Taylor? Taylor from the this afternoon Taylor?"

Taylor cleared his throat. "Yeah," he managed to whisper. Mrs. Halloran sounded non to pleased that he was calling.

"Hold on a moment," she said stiffly.

"Sure." Taylor heard Mrs. Halloran set the phone down. There was some muffled talking in the background, then Gretchen picked up the phone.

"Hi Taylor, I can’t talk long. My mom is sort of mad at me."

Taylor frowned. "How come?"

"Just because. I’ll tell you later. I really can’t talk right now."

"Wait, Gretchen. Do you think we could do something tomorrow?"

"Oh, I can’t. My mom wants me to go with her to some meeting thing."

"Well, how about the next day?"

"Umm, that should be fine. I’ll call you, okay?"

Taylor heard Mrs. Halloran say something in the background.

"Oops, I really have to go Taylor. I’ll talk to you later."

"Yeah, later," Taylor sighed and hung up the phone. He had a sneaking suspicion he knew why Gretchen couldn’t talk to him, and it’s name was Mrs. Halloran. Taylor decided he would try to make a better impression on her the next time he saw her.



"I had a really great time tonight, Isaac. I hope we can do it again sometime."

Isaac had brought Claire home, and they now stood on her porch, in the dusk, muggy night.

"Me too, I’m really glad I got to know you. I want to get to know you even better." Isaac blushed as he said that.

Claire smiled. "I want to get to know you better too." She leaned forward and lightly brushed her lips on Isaac’s cheek. "Well, goodnight. Make sure you call me before you leave for Europe."

"Claire, wait." Isaac grabbed her arm and pulled her to him.

"What," she whispered.

Isaac just looked into her eyes, losing himself in their dark blue presence. He closed his eyes, breaking the contact, and sighed. He felt Claire wrap her arms around him, and he hugged her back. He swore he could hear his own heart beating at a rate ten times faster than normal. Isaac pulled away slightly and gave Claire a pleading look. He tentatively leaned forward, and lightly brushed his lips to hers. Claire pulled away, and smiled.

"Good night, Isaac." She quietly said, and stepped inside.

Isaac closed his eyes again, and stood on her porch for a moment. He nearly jumped when once again Juliet crossed his mind. What have I done, he asked himself. Opening his eyes, Isaac glanced at his watch. 10:07. I still have time.

Quickly, Isaac jumped into the car, and took off in the direction of Juliet’s house.



"Ike, I wasn’t expecting you to..." Juliet couldn’t finish her sentence before Isaac had grabbed her and began kissing her.

He backed her into the house, and using his foot, slammed the front door behind him. He picked her up and carried her down the hallway to her bedroom. Setting her down, he closed the door.

"What’s gotten into you tonight?" Juliet asked, amazed at Isaac’s behavior.

"You, you’ve gotten into me. You were all I could think about tonight," Isaac whispered as he kissed her again. He made his way over to her bed, and gently pushed her onto it, laying on top of her.

"You missed me that much?" Juliet asked.

Isaac felt another stab of guilt. He had missed her yes, but he didn’t want to tell her the reason he was so worked up was because he had been with another girl. "Yeah, I really missed you."

"Good," Juliet said.

She tugged at his shirt, and pulled it off, running her hands up and down his smooth chest. Rolling him over she sat on top of him, and lightly traced her tongue on his stomach, gently licking and nibbling her way up his chest. Isaac closed his eyes, and breathed deeply, trying to keep himself in control. When he felt Juliet reach for his pants, he roughly grabbed her hands and pushed them away.

"What’s the matter," Juliet asked, concerned and hurt.

Isaac opened his eyes. "Oh, hey, I’m sorry. I’m just......" he sighed. "I’m to worked up right now. Just give me a minute, okay? Just, lay with me." He reached up and pulled her down next to him, lightly stroking her hair. "You drive me crazy, you know that?"

"Why do you say that?" Juliet asked.

"I just, I want you so badly, that I sort of ruin it before I can have you." Isaac sighed again.

"It’s okay. We don’t always have to have sex you know. I mean, this is nice. Just being together. Just having you next to me is enough."

Isaac kissed her forehead. "Jul, I have to tell you something," he began.

"Sure, anything."

Why am I such a coward? How do I always manage to get myself into situations like this. "I’m really going to miss you when we go away."

"I’m going to miss you too. But never fear, they have phones in Europe. Besides you’re only going to be gone for a few weeks, not forever."

Isaac smiled. "I know, but I’m still going to miss you."

"Know something Ike? You have just been getting way to sappy on me lately." Juliet laughed.

"Yeah, yeah, I know. I can’t help it. I’m just a sappy sort of guy I guess."

Isaac kissed her gently once again, then sighed. "I guess I should go home. My dad wants me back by eleven, and I’m sure your parents are going to be home soon too."

"You’re right. Well, listen. Call me tomorrow, okay? We can get together and do something. Like I don’t know, go to the mall or whatever."

Isaac snapped to attention. "The mall?" he gulped.

"Yeah, you know. That big building that has stores in it? The mall?" Juliet gave Isaac a weird glance.

"I know what the mall is Miss Sarcastic. I just, umm, I really don’t want to go to the mall tomorrow."

"Well, that’s fine. I was just making a suggestion, geez. We can go somewhere else. I don’t know what you’re getting all worked up about."

"I’m not getting worked up. I just don’t want to go to the mall, okay?" Isaac snapped.

"Fine, you don’t have to be rude about it Isaac. What the heck is up with you?"

Isaac frowned. "I don’t know. I’m sorry. I should just go."

"Maybe that’s a good idea," Juliet agreed.

Isaac stood up and walked to the door. "I’ll call you, okay?" He turned and left, letting himself out the front door. He sat in his car for a moment, wondering why he had snapped at Juliet. Claire. Claire was why. Shaking his head, Isaac turned the car on and backed out, needing to just get home and as far away from any girls as possible.



"Hey Ike?" Taylor asked into the dark.

"What Tay?"

"Are you gonna tell us where you went tonight?"

"I went out with a friend Taylor. That’s all. Just a friend."

"Dad said you said you were gonna be hanging out with David Piper. But you didn’t did you?" Zac spoke up.

"You guys, don’t say anything okay? I went out with this girl I met. Just as friends, okay? Nothing more. We just hung out. I just didn’t want anyone to say anything to Juliet in case she got the wrong idea, so you guys keep your traps shut, all right?"

"Did you kiss her," Taylor asked. He really couldn’t believe Isaac had gone out with another girl, even if he did claim it was just as friends.

"No, I mean, no. I didn’t kiss her. We are just friends, okay?"

"Okay Ike. Whatever you say." Taylor was glad it was dark so that Isaac couldn’t see his look of doubt.

"Hey Ike?"

"Now what Taylor? I would like to get some sleep tonight."

"I just have one quick question. Do you think that if I took Gretchen to MetroParks, she might loosen up a bit?"

"How do you mean?" Isaac asked.

"Well, she just......I dont’ know. This morning, when I went over to her house, we..." Taylor trailed off and glanced across the room at Zac’s bed. Zac was breathing deeply. "Hey, Zac? You up?" Taylor called quietly.

No answer.

"Okay, look. We were in her room, and we kind of made out, and.."

"You mean the ice maiden let her guard down?" Isaac snorted.

"Don’t call her that Ike. And, yeah. sort of. I mean, she was actually kissing me back and stuff. But she still seems just I don’t know, really hesitant. Like she was only doing it because it was what I expected. Not because she really wanted to."

"Taylor, you didn’t force her to do something she didn’t want to did you?" Isaac was suddenly concerned.

"No, no. I mean, I had to sort of ask her to kiss me. Well, more like beg, but I want her to you know, loosen up. Be more affectionate."

"Well Taylor, some girls just aren’t like that. There are the girls who just love to have their guy hanging on them all the time. Then there are the girls that just like to have fun, you know. They don’t need that constant attention."

Taylor sighed. "I know. But there is just something about Gretchen. I don’t even know what it is. But it just makes me need her, you know?"

"I know. Trust me, I know how it is. Just give her some time. She’ll lighten up. Now shut up, I’m tired and I want to sleep."

Taylor laughed. "Okay, and thanks Ike."

"Sure, no problem."

.

Chapter 23 - Thin Line Between Love and Lust

As he dialed Juliet's number, Isaac sighed. He felt bad for snapping at her the night before. But when she had mentioned the mall the first thought that came to his mind was that Claire would be there. He shook his head to clear the thoughts of her out of his mind when Juliet picked up the phone.

"Hey, Juliet? It’s me, Isaac."

"I know."

Isaac sighed. This already didn’t sound good. "Listen, about last night..."

"What about it?" Juliet interrupted.

"Hey, let’s not start this with a fight."

"Who’s fighting? I’m just waiting for an apology," Juliet replied snippily.

"Well, if you would let me finish, I was going to say that I’m sorry," Isaac snapped. Mentally groaning, he put his hand on his forehead. I am really blowing it, he thought.

"Isaac? Why is it every time I turn around lately you’re snapping at me? When you aren’t being a jerk, you’re bursting into my house, acting like Conan the Barbarian or something. What is up with you?"

"Wait a minute, Conan? Excuse me but if I am not mistaken you invited me over last night, did you not?"

"Yeah, I invited you over. I didn’t expect for you to drag me to the bedroom first thing, although with the way you’ve been acting lately it shouldn’t really surprise me."

"I don’t believe this!" Isaac was really starting to get upset. "You certainly didn’t seem to mind me dragging you into the bedroom. Need I remind you who took off whose shirt last night? Don’t you dare even pull that on me. I have never," Isaac’s voice trembled. "NEVER, forced you to do anything you didn’t want to, so don’t even turn around and blame all this on me!" Isaac stopped and took a deep breath. Anger couldn’t describe how he felt right now.

Juliet was silent for a moment. "I know," she whispered finally. "I know you never forced me. I wanted to. I wanted to be with you. I’m just afraid that I am losing you."

Isaac closed his eyes. Why did she have to do this to him now? He felt so torn. "God, Jul......you aren’t losing me. I’m just.......I’m so confused right now. I don’t know what I want."

"Why? Why are you confused? I don’t understand this Ike. I’ve given you everything, EVERYTHING. I can’t give you anything else. I don’t have anything else."

"Maybe....," Isaac sighed. "Maybe that’s the problem." She didn’t reply. "Jul? Juliet? Please say something."

Her voice was slow and shaky. "What? What do you want me to say?"

"I don’t know. I don’t know." Isaac twirled the phone cord absently in his hand for a moment.

"Look, you’re going away for awhile. Maybe this is what we need. We’ve been together for awhile now and maybe we just need a break. To, I don’t know. Sort things out. I'm not saying we should break up, but maybe a breather would be a good idea, to see if we want to keep this up." She seemed to be in control again, and that worried Isaac.

"I don’t want to leave you," he whispered.

"Well, Ike. It’s all a part of moving on, isn’t it?" She sighed. "I have to go, okay? I’ll be here if you want to call me or whatever. Have a safe trip. Have fun. Don’t let this bring you down." Pausing, she added, softly, "I’m going to really miss you Isaac." Quietly she set the phone down.

Isaac listened to the dial tone for a full minute before he hung up. He leaned, hunched forward, and briskly rubbed his face with his hands. We didn't break up, we are just taking a small break, he thought to himself. His thoughts were a jumbled mess. He wanted Juliet desperatly. But he wanted Claire too. Why is this stupid stuff so damn complicated, he wondered. He heaved a great sigh, and running his hands through his tangled hair, he suddenly jumped up. Grabbing some clean clothes he went to the bathroom and hopped into the shower, hoping to wash away all his pain and confusion with the scalding water.



Taylor sat on the couch next to Zac and Jessica watching a cartoon that he personally thought was the dumbest thing to ever grace the screen, however his brother and sister were cracking up over it.

"Why do you guys find this funny? It’s so stupid."

Zac gave Taylor a dirty look. "You’re stupid."

"Ohhh, good comeback Zacky. I’m impressed."

"You guys, shut up. I’m watching this," Jessica angrily informed her brothers.

Taylor stuck out his tongue and made a face.

"I’m telling mom!" Jessica jumped up from the couch, hands on her hips, glaring at Taylor.

"Fine, tell mom. See if I care."

Jessica ran out of the room, towards the kitchen. Not more than two minutes later, Mrs. Hanson walked into the TV room. "Taylor, if you can’t watch the show, leave the room. Don’t make fun of your sister."

"But mom, I....." Taylor began to protest.

Mrs. Hanson held up her hand. "I don’t want to hear it, I’m not in the mood."

Suddenly Taylor felt guilty. His mom had seemed sort of down lately. Really tired all the time and she had been getting sick a lot. He had a sneaking suspicion he knew why, but didn’t want to say anything until his parents confirmed what he thought. "Sorry mom," he grumbled.

Mrs. Hanson shook her head and left the room, muttering about what nonsense she had to put up with over a cartoon called Angry Beavers or some such silly thing.

Taylor sighed. He could tell it was going to be another fun filled day at the Hanson household. His mom was in a crabby mood. Isaac had been moody, and now he was crabbing with Zac and Jessica. "I need to get out of this house," he said aloud to no one in particular.

His statement was greeted by two angry voices going, "SHHHH."

Taylor threw his hands in the air. Deciding that finding a moody Ike was better than sitting with two crabby kids watching stupid cartoons, he went up the stairs. Maybe Ike would be willing to go to the mall or something.



"Hey, Ike. IKE!"

Isaac turned off the blow dryer. "What!" He yelled through the closed bathroom door.

"I was thinking that it’s been awhile since we’ve been to the mall. So I thought we could go," Taylor stated hopefully through the door.

Isaac sighed. "Tay, I really don’t feel like it."

"Why not? Come on, please? I wanna check out Record Den. They were supposed to order that sheet music for me."

"No."

"Please? Pleeeeease?" Taylor leaned against the bathroom door.

Isaac chose that moment to open the door and caught an unaware Taylor who fell inside. Isaac looked at his brother who sat in shock on the bathroom floor, then proceeded to turn the blow dryer back on and continue doing his hair. Taylor scowled and stood up, swiping at the water that had soaked into his sweatpants when he fell on the floor.

"You know, you’re gonna ruin your hair if you keep blow-drying it," Taylor stated, hopping up and sitting on the bathroom counter, looking at his brother.

"What?" Isaac called over the noise of the dryer.

Taylor sighed. "I SAID YOU"RE GOING TO........oh." Isaac had turned to dryer off and now Taylor was shouting into the silence. "I said you’re going to ruin your hair if you keep blow-drying it all the time. Why don’t you just let it dry naturally like me?"

"Because Taylor, if I don’t dry it, I look like Shirley Temple on steroids. Now go away."

"Wait, I’m not going until you say you’ll go to the mall with me."

"Taylor, I don’t want to go to the mall. Why don’t you call one of you’re demented little friends and go with them."

"Come on Ike, pleeeeease. I don’t feel like going with any of my friends. Just go with me, okay? Come on, what are you gonna do? Sit here all day with our crabby family? Come on, Ike, please? Pretty please? With sugar......"

"Do you always have to whine to get your own way?" Isaac asked.

Taylor smiled. "Well ya, cause it usually works."

"Why do I give in so easily to you? Why?" Isaac shook his head.

Taylor jumped down from the counter, grabbed his brother and said, " ‘Cause you love me!"

Isaac pushed Taylor off of him. "No, I don’t."

Taylor grinned. "Yes you do. You think that I am the coolest younger brother you could have ever had and wish mom and dad would have had ten more just like me."

"What do you mean wish? They practically did have ten more. And they all whine." Isaac stared at his brother for a moment. "Well?"

"Well what?"

"Don’t you think you should get dressed if you want to go to the mall so badly?" Isaac pointed to Taylor’s tee shirt, sweatpants and bare feet.

Taylor glanced down at his clothes. "What? You mean I can’t go like this?" Jumping out of the way before Isaac could hit him, he went towards their bedroom calling over his shoulder, "Give me ten minutes."



It’s no big deal. Just a stupid horse. No reason to be afraid.

The thoughts were repeating themselves over and over in Zac’s mind, but were doing nothing to quell his growing apprehension. He had almost forgoten that today was the day he was going horse back riding, but when Marie had phoned making sure he was ready because her mother was on the way, all his fears surfaced. He knew that he absolutely did not want to ride some stupid horse. But there was no way he was telling Marie that. If he said he was afraid he knew she would never let him live it down. Admitting fear to a girl, especially a girl he liked as much as Marie was not an option for Zac. Marie knowing that he was afraid to ride a horse would be worse than losing to her a million times in Mortal Kombat or any other video game combined. So he sat, nervously chewing his fingernails, waiting for Mrs. Fletcher to pick him up.

"Zac, stop biting your nails. It’s a disgusting habit," Mrs. Hanson scolded as she walked in the room to see her son gnawing on his hand.

Sighing Zac dropped his hand and began to jiggle his legs, tapping a fast rhythm on his knees with his fingertips.

"What is with you?" Mrs. Hanson gave her son a curious look.

"Nothing," Zac squeaked. Admitting he was afraid of a horse to his mother was almost just as bad as telling Marie.

Before Mrs. Hanson could reply, a car pulled into the driveway. Zac took a deep breath and stood.

"Well, I guess I’m going now. Gonna go riding. Yep, riding a horse. It’s gonna be fun." Zac walked slowly towards the front door. "I’m going. Unless you say I can’t go. Unless you wanted me to stay around the house, to you know, help or whatever."

"No, not at all. Go riding. Have fun. You and Marie be careful." Mrs. Hanson smiled at Zac.

He gave her a weak grin in return and headed out the door for the waiting car.



Isaac and Taylor had been ambling slowly around the mall for about an hour when Isaac suddenly stopped.

Taylor kept walking and was about five feet away when he realized his brother wasn’t next to him. He turned and looked. Isaac was standing in the middle of the walkway, a thoughtful look on his face. "Ike? Hello? What are you doing?"

"Wait here a minute. I have to go somewhere." Isaac started off across the mall.

"Hey, Ike! Wait a minute." Taylor ran to catch up with his brother. "Where you going?"

"Taylor, I want to go somewhere for a minute. Alone. So will you please wait here? I’ll be back in like five minutes. I swear."

Taylor sighed. "Fine," he grumbled. "I don’t see why I can’t go, but that is just fine. I’m gonna wait right over there." He pointed to a nearby store.

"Okay, good. Five minutes. I promise."

Taylor waved him away. "Yeah, yeah, whatever, go."

Isaac smiled and continued across the mall.

"Leave me here, make me wait alone, some brother," Taylor grumbled as he made his way over to Gadzooks. He walked in the store, looked at clothes for a few minutes, got bored and went back out. Sighing, Taylor leaned against the wall, and fiddled with zipper on his windbreaker.

"TAYLOR HANSON!"

Taylor’s head shot up, and he caught his finger in the zipper. "OUCH!" he exclaimed, pulling it free and sticking his red finger in his mouth. Looking around, he was afraid to find the voice that had shouted his name. It was female, and he was sure that he would get stuck signing autographs or something for the next hour. Not that he minded, but he had wanted to lay low and just hang out. As he continued to search for the shouter, she suddenly was in front of him and he almost choked on his gum. "Claudia," he squeaked.

"Hi! I wasn’t sure if you remembered me or not," Claudia cheerfully replied.

Taylor gave her the once over, drinking in the sight of her slender legs that peeked out from underneath her skirt. "Yeah, I remember you," he said then muttered to himself, "how could I forget you?"

"What?"

"It’s good to see you. Where’ve you been?"

"I should ask where you’ve been! I’ve seen you on TV all over the place. You never told me you were a singer."

"I could have told you if you would have given me your phone number," Taylor reminded her bitterly.

Claudia laughed. "Oh yeah. Sorry about that. My boyfriend, or should I say ex-boyfriend, Corey, was one of those dumb jock types. All muscle, no brain. If he would have found out I gave you my number he would have killed me, then gone after you." Claudia leaned in closer and her hair, even longer than Taylor remembered it being, brushed against him. He breathed in deeply, hoping it wasn’t to obvious that he was inhaling her sweet smell. "Besides, if he knew what we did in the movie theater....." Claudia whispered into Taylor’s ear, her voice trailing off, leaving his ear tingling where her breath had blown gently across it.

Taylor smiled. "Yeah, I guess so," he whispered back.

Claudia took a small step back, but was still awfully close. "So what’s up with this whole music thing? You and your brothers have a band, huh? I saw your video on MTV. I nearly fell through the floor. I ran around the house telling everyone I knew you and your brother, what’s his name again? Wait don’t tell me, it was......"

"Isaac."

"That’s right, Isaac. I remember now." She glanced around. "Is he with you? Or are you here alone?"

Taylor scowled. "He’s here all right. Left me to go somewhere for what was supposed to be five minutes, and that was, about fifteen minutes ago."

"Aww, poor baby," Claudia cooed.

"Claudia, let’s go!" An impatient voice broke in.

"All right, I’ll be there in a minute," Claudia snapped at the girl who was standing, arms crossed, a frown on her face.

"I’m sorry Taylor. My sister gets a little impatient sometimes."

"Tell me about it, I have two sisters and they snap at the drop of a hat."

"Well look," Claudia dug into her purse and extracted a pen and small piece of paper. "Here’s my number." She held the paper against Taylor’s chest and scribbled her name and phone number on it, then handed it to him. "Call me. We can get together and hang out sometime, okay?" She flashed him a huge smile.

"Yeah, absolutely," Taylor agreed.

"Great, well I’ll see you around then." Claudia leaned up and lightly kissed Taylor’s cheek, then joined her sister.

Oh man is today my lucky day or what! Taylor happily thought. Smiling he walked to a nearby bench and sat, waiting for Isaac to show up. He no longer cared how long his brother had been gone, he had Claudia’s number, and right now that was all that mattered.



"NO WAY!" Zac shouted. He no longer cared if Marie thought he was a wimp. There was no way he was getting on that horse.

Marie just laughed. "Zac, don’t be a baby. She won’t hurt you."

Zac stared up at the biggest horse he had ever seen in his whole life, and looked at the stable hand, who was holding the reins. "You don’t really expect me to get on this thing, do you?"

The young woman, who had introduced herself as Autumn, just laughed at him.

Zac frowned at Autumn’s lack of compassion, and took a step closer to the animal. "I can’t believe Marie actually talked me into this."

"Come on Zac, just get on her." Marie told him. She was already in the saddle of her mount.

"Don’t worry, this is Lady. She’s completely harmless," Autumn reassured Zac.

Still unsure, Zac stepped closer to Lady. Suddenly the horse snorted and stamped her front hoof on the ground. Zac jumped about a foot in the air, and quickly backed off about ten feet. Marie and Autumn laughed at him as he gave the horse a dirty look. Lady just yawned.

"Would you look at the size of those teeth!" Zac watched in amazement as the horse’s mouth opened wide. "There’s no way I’m getting on that thing. What if she bites me? She’ll take off a leg with those suckers."

"Honey, she won’t bite you. There is nothing for you to worry about. I’m going to be riding with you two the whole time. Lady is the gentlest horse we have, and is great with beginners. I promise you she won’t hurt you. Now come on, let’s get you up here." Autumn motioned for Zac to come over.

Zac sighed, defeated and reluctantly walked back over to the horse.
"Just stand on that mounting block over there."

Zac just looked at Autumn, confused.

"Go stand on the stump over there." Autumn pointed to a large tree stump that stood in the yard.

"Oh, okay." Zac walked over to the stump and climbed on top of it.
Autumn brought Lady over and stopped her next to Zac. "Now , very gently lean forward, put your hands near the top of Lady’s saddle and the bottom of her neck and put your right leg over her. I’ll give you a little push to help."

Zac cautiously placed his right leg over Lady’s back, barely touching the saddle, as if he was afraid Lady might explode if he sat on her. Autumn gave him a push, and he found himself sitting almost six feet off the ground. He gave Autumn a worried look, and asked, "How tall is this horse?"

Autumn busied herself with adjusting the saddle’s stirrups and answered, "Actually she is a large horse, about six feet, or sixteen hands in horse language. Why?"

"I just want to know how far I have to fall when she throws me off."

Autumn laughed, "She won’t throw you off. Here, put your feet through the stirrups." She gently guided each of his feet into the stirrups, showing him how to keep the ball of his foot on the flat, metal bottom. "There, now hold these, just like this." She showed him the proper way to hold the reins. "All right kiddo, you’re all set. Just sit here a minute while I get my horse and we’ll be all set." Autumn told another stable hand to watch Marie and Zac while she went back into the barn to get her horse.

"See, this isn’t so bad," Marie said to Zac.

"Well, no, but we haven’t moved yet," Zac pointed out.

"Trust me, this is gonna be so much fun, you’re gonna love it."

"Yeah, we’ll see," Zac muttered as Autumn arrived on her horse and began the trail ride.



Isaac walked into Sweet Stop and headed towards the counter where Claire was standing. When she saw him approaching, she gave him a big smile.

"Hey," he said as he stood next to her. "How you doing?"

"Great, how about you?"

"Okay I guess. I was dragged to the mall by my brother so I figured I would stop in and say hi."

"Well, I’m glad you did. I want to thank you again for last night. It was really wonderful."

"Yeah, it was," Isaac tried hard to sound sincere, but he knew that what had happened with Juliet was making it hard.

"Is something wrong?" Claire asked, not buying his fake smile.

"Nah, just sort of having a bad day." Isaac gave her a weak smile.

"I’m sorry. Do you want to talk about it?" she asked, concerned.

"Umm, no, not really. It’s just, you know. Everyone in my family was being crabby, then I got hassled by Taylor until I drove him here, so it kinda put a damper on the day." Isaac was glad he didn’t entirely have to lie. His family was being crabby and that with the fight he had with Juliet, contributed to his bad day. "However," he added brightening. "I did get to see you so the day can’t be that bad."

Claire smiled. "You really know how to get a girl to like you don’t you?"

"What? You mean you weren’t just taken by my good looks alone?" Isaac gave her a shocked look.

"Stop it," she said, laughing.

"Okay, sorry. So listen, what time do you get off of work?"

"Umm, on Saturday’s I usually get off at around five or so, why?"

"Well, if you’re not busy tonight, maybe we could get together, hang out or something."

"Sure, that would be great. I have to go with Nana to the store for some stuff and that takes a little while because she is so picky, so I probably won’t get back until 6:30. Unless you wanted to come shopping with us," she added with a laugh.

"Okay, sure."

Claire stopped laughing. "You’re serious?"

"Well, yeah. Why not? Maybe the two of you could teach me some sign language. I always wanted to learn."

Claire smiled. "Okay, well great then. Come over to my house at around 5:30, okay?"

"I’ll be there." Isaac glanced at his watch. "Oh man, Taylor’s going to have a fit. I told him five minutes and it’s been about twenty. I better get going."

"Thanks for stopping by Isaac. I’ll see you later."

"Yeah, later." Isaac left the store and took off across the mall, hoping Taylor wouldn’t be to upset.

When he found his brother, Taylor was sitting on a bench, a strange sort of smile on his face.

"Look, Tay, I know you’re mad. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to take so long."

"Hmmm? Oh, I’m not mad."

Isaac gave Taylor a look. "You’re not?"

"No. Where’d you go anyway?"

"Oh, umm, I stopped in to see Claire. She works here."

"Ohhh, I see. Well, guess who I ran into."

"Who?"

"A certain girl, who I met with you a while ago. We all three went to a movie together."

"That chick with the bags? What was her name? Chloe or something?"

"Claudia, duh."

"Well excuse me. I wasn’t the one molded to her in the theater so I can’t quite recall her name. So what did she have to say?"

"Nothing much. Just that she wants to get together with me to hang out. She gave me her number this time." Taylor gave Isaac a smug smile.

"Oh she did huh? Well Romeo, what about Gretchen?"

"What about Juliet?" Taylor shot back.

Isaac sighed. "What about her?" he muttered.

"Well, you’re dating this Claire girl, aren’t you? You say you’re not, but I’m not stupid Ike."

Isaac just shook his head. "Whatever," he mumbled. "Let’s go." The two boys headed towards the parking lot.

"You are dating her aren’t you?" Taylor pressed as they walked. "What about Juliet though, really? I mean, don’t you love her?"

"Do you love Gretchen?" Isaac asked.

"No, I don’t love her. I like her...a lot, but that’s it."

"Well, if you don’t love Gretchen they why do you just assume that I love Juliet?"

"Well, because," Taylor stated with disbelief. "I mean, you had sex with her. You’re sleeping with her."

"I really like Juliet. And maybe in some way I do love her. But I’m not in love with her. Understand? And I really like Claire. She’s really smart and we have a lot in common. I’m only sixteen, I mean, why shouldn’t I like more than one girl?"

"I don’t really believe I’m hearing you say that. My own brother who I used to think was the most romantic guy in the world, the one who thought he’d be married by the time he was in third grade, he’s....." Taylor paused. "He’s turned into a sex crazed manic." Taylor snickered as he said this.

"I have not!" Isaac exclaimed. "I just like two girls, and they both like me. I don’t want to hurt either one of them."

"So........what? You’re just going to date both of them, to prevent hurting them? Oh Ike, how sweet," Taylor teased. "You always look out for other’s feelings, don’t you?" Taylor didn’t quite catch his older brother’s reasoning.

"Tay, you don’t understand. If I tell Claire that I already have a girlfriend," Isaac stopped. "Well, a girlfriend I’m taking a small break from, she’ll be really mad. And if I tell Juliet that I want to see other people, she’ll get madder at me than she already is. So either way, if I tell the truth, someone is gonna get pissed on."

"But what if they find out that you’re dating both of them?"

"What about you huh? Mr. Oh I got Claudia’s number. Don’t you think Gretchen is going to be pissed when she hears that?"

"That’s totally different. You can’t even compare the two circumstances."

"Why not?"

"Because, I am not sleeping with Gretchen. We are not boyfriend and girlfriend. So it’s not like I’m going to be cheating on her or anything. I don’t even think Gretchen wants a boyfriend."

"Well, whatever. Juliet and I are taking a break, like I said. So it shouldn’t matter that I’m going to see Claire. We’re leaving in a week anyway, and I’ll have a lot of time to think about everything and then I’ll see what I’m going to do. Right now I’m just confused. Now let’s drop this."

Seeing he wasn’t going to get anymore decent conversation from Isaac, Taylor followed slowly along. The two boys were silent the whole way home, each lost in his own thoughts.



"Did you kids have fun?" Mrs. Fletcher asked when she picked Marie and Zac up from the stables.

"It was great!" Marie crowed.

"I’m never gonna be able to walk normal again. I won’t be able to sit down for months. I think my seat is permanently gonna be bruised from this," Zac complained.

"You’re such a big baby, Zac," Marie laughed. "You had fun and you know it."

"Sure it was fun while you’re on the horse. The minute you get off and your body is stuck in the same position it was when you were sitting on the horse is the bad part. I’ve never felt so sore in my whole life. Even touring is easier than this."

Mrs. Fletcher laughed. "Well Zac, just think. Now that Marie has that out of her system, you won’t have to ever ride again."

"Whatever mom. The minute he gets back we’re gonna go again!"

"Oh umm, gee. As much fun as that sounds Marie, I really think that the next time you mention horse back riding, I am gonna be busy."

"Every time?"

"Yup, every time."

"Oh fine," Marie pouted. "I’ll just get someone else to go with me."

"Good idea," Zac agreed. "I’ll let you torture me with anything else. But I am never getting on another horse as long as I live."



Taylor smiled in the blissful silence. It wasn’t to often he practically had the whole house to himself. Isaac had gone out with that Claire girl again. Zac was having dinner with Marie, and Mrs. Hanson had taken Jessica, Avery, and Mac with her to visit her sister. Mr. Hanson was in the living room watching TV. He had thrown two TV dinners in the oven at 5:30 and Taylor and he had a small makeshift dinner. Now Taylor sat at the kitchen table, scribbling in a notebook, just enjoying the fact that there was no one to argue with or be hassled by. As he absently doodled, he wondered to himself if Gretchen was home from the meeting her mother had dragged her to. Assuming it couldn’t have lasted more than an hour or so, he figured he would give her a call. He only hoped that Mrs. Halloran didn’t answer the phone. In the one time he had met Gretchen’s mother and the time he talked to her on the phone, he got a good hunch that she didn’t like him much. Truthfully he couldn’t understand why. Sure she had sort of caught them making out, but really, she hadn’t seen anything, and that was still no reason to not like him. Taylor picked up the phone and dialed the number by heart.

"Hello?"

Great, Mrs. Halloran. "Umm, yeah, hi. Mrs. Halloran? This is Taylor. Taylor Hanson. Is Gretchen there?"

"She is Taylor, but right now Gretchen is very busy and can’t talk on the phone."

Taylor frowned and sunk lower into his chair. "Oh. Well, could you tell her I called please?"

There was silence on the other end.

"Mrs. Halloran? Could you tell Gretchen I called?"

"Yes, Taylor, I’ll tell her."

Taylor sighed as he heard the dial tone. Hanging up the phone he absently reached up and scratched his head. "This is ridiculous," he said aloud. "How can she judge me on one meeting. And it’s not like we even really talked. She just doesn’t like me because I’m a boy." Taylor squinted as he pondered this. "Well, I’m gonna go see her anyway. She can’t not let me at least talk to her. Can she?" He answered his own question. "No she most certainly cannot! So there Mrs. Halloran, how do you like that?"

Taylor glanced at his watch. 6:00. Plenty of daylight left. Jumping up from the kitchen chair he raced to his room, grabbed his shoes, and made his way to the living room. Mr. Hanson was watching old Car 54 Where Are You? reruns.

"Hey Dad? Umm, would it be okay if I ran over to Gretchen’s house really quick? I need to talk to her about something."

Mr. Hanson looked at his son. "Why don’t you just call her?"

Taylor sighed. "I did, and her mom said she couldn’t talk. But I know she only said that cause she doesn’t want her to talk to me."

Mr. Hanson frowned. "Why wouldn’t she want Gretchen to talk to you."

"I don’t know! That’s just it. She has no reason, she just doesn’t like me!" Taylor exclaimed, tossing his hands in the air for emphasis.

"You haven’t given her any reason to not like you?" Mr. Hanson gave Taylor a knowing stare.

Looking down at the carpet, Taylor quietly replied, "No, nothing that I can think of. She’s only met me once for petes sake. So I think she just doesn’t like the fact that a boy is hanging out with her daughter. You know, I think she’s like, paranoid or something."

Mr. Hanson laughed. "I doubt she’s paranoid Taylor. She probably has a good idea about you teenage boys."

Taylor gave his father a dirty look. "Geez, you parents make us out to be such bad guys, but you know what? We aren’t really. At least I’m not."

This just made Mr. Hanson laugh harder. "All right Tay," he said through chuckles. "You can go, but if Mrs. Halloran doesn’t want you there, then leave. I don’t need to be getting any phone calls about a certain son being arrested for trespassing."

"Yeah, yeah," Taylor grumbled over his shoulder as he made his way out the front door.



"I thought you said this was S," Isaac looked at Claire, confused out of his skull.

She laughed. "No, I said a closed fist with the thumb at the side is the letter A. A closed fist with the thumb in front is an S. Like this." She demonstrated again.

"Oh, I get it. Okay so my name is," Isaac clumsily spelled out his name in sign language.

"There you go, you got it! See, I told you it wasn’t hard." Claire smiled at him.

"Well, the alphabet isn’t hard, no. But I would never be able to talk like you and your grandmother were at the store. That was amazing. I just kept thinking how cool it would be to know this whole other language. And what’s funny is that so many people don’t think of it as a language, but it is."

"It’s the fourth most commonly used language in this country," Claire informed him. "And I’m sure if you practiced enough you would be able to sign just as well as I can."

"If I had you as a teacher maybe," Isaac said, grinning.

Claire lightly punched his shoulder. "Gee, thanks. I’m flattered. All right, my turn. I taught you sign language, well a little bit at least. Now you have to teach me how to play this stupid guitar of mine. I still will never know why my parents bought this for me. I have no musical talent what-so-ever. Goes to show you how much they know about me, huh?"

Isaac looked Claire over. "Does it bother you that they don’t seem to want to be a part of your life other than phone calls?"

Claire fiddled with her ring, twisting it around her finger as she spoke. "You know, it used to. I used to just sit and cry. I mean I really love Nana and I love it here, but Toronto was home for fourteen years, and as much as I do love it here I miss it sometimes. Not so much the city, but all my old school friends, my other relatives. And my parents, well, I know they love me. But they love their work more."

Isaac reached over and touched Claire’s arm gently. "I’m sorry," he quietly said.

Claire smiled at him. "Don’t be. I’m not. I do love my parents, but I’ve learned to live with the fact that I am not really a priority in their lives. It’s OK. I have Nana. I’m strong enough to not need their attention."

Isaac sighed. "I don’t understand how they can let someone as wonderful as you go. I really can’t comprehend that."

Leaning over, Claire lightly brushed her lips against Isaac’s cheek. Putting her lips by his ear then, she whispered, "Thanks." Pulling away, she stated. "All right, now show me how to rock on this baby."

Isaac raised his eyebrows. "Rock on this baby? I don’t think I can after you put it that way."

"Okay, sorry so it was corny and lame. Forgive me. But really, show me how to play this sucker. I am determined to learn at least Twinkle Twinkle Little Star if it kills me."

Isaac laughed. He picked up the guitar and strummed a few notes. "This is horribly out of tune," he muttered fiddling with the guitar. After a few minutes of plucking and strumming, he was able to get a decent sound out of the guitar and started playing the opening notes of an old Otis Redding song, as he talked. "All right, here we go. This is chord A......"

"Don’t bother with notes and chords. I’m clueless. Just play something and I’ll try to copy it."

Isaac laughed. "Okay, that sounds fair enough."



As Taylor approached Gretchen’s house he got an idea. Deciding to forego knocking on the front door and risk the possibility of Mrs. Halloran answering, he figured he would go around to the side of the house and see if Gretchen was in her bedroom. She had a window next to her bed and it wasn’t that far up, so he would be able to talk to her through it. Making his way cautiously around the side of the house, Taylor stood on tiptoes and peered into Gretchen’s bedroom window. Gretchen was laying on her stomach on her bed, reading. Her feet, covered only by a pair of red Elmo socks were crossed at the ankle and she was lightly kicking her backside with them. Taylor was surprised to see that she was wearing shorts for once. He smiled, watching her face, which was showing her absorbed interest in the book. Taylor could see she was reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Lightly, he rapped on the window. Gretchen glanced up. When she saw Taylor looking at her through the window she jumped. Clasping her hand over her mouth the keep from yelling in surprise, she leaned over to the window and opened it.

"What on earth are you doing here?" She whispered.

Taylor smiled. "Did your mom tell you I called?" he asked.

"No, when did you call?"

Taylor’s smile fell. "I knew she wouldn’t tell you. Oh well, either way I called and she said you couldn’t talk so I came to see you instead."

Gretchen fought back a smile. "Taylor you better go. If my mom knows you’re here she’ll have a fit and if you have any hopes of me being allowed to go somewhere tomorrow with you......"

"That’s what I came to talk to you about. I’m taking you to the MetroParks tomorrow. Is that OK?"

"The MetroParks? Wow, I haven’t been there since I was, well since I was like five. That sounds great."

Taylor grinned. "Good. I’ll be here at eleven, okay?"

A knock on the bedroom door startled them both. Taylor’s eyes grew wide and he ducked below the window sill.

"Yeah?" Gretchen called weakly.

"Gretchen, please come help me with dinner," Mrs. Halloran called through the door.

"Okay mom. I’ll be out in a second." Gretchen turned and looked out the window. "Taylor?"

He popped up again and grinned.

"You really have to go. I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?"

"Yeah, yeah, I’m going. Don’t forget, eleven o’clock sharp. Be ready."

"I will."

Gretchen began to close the window and Taylor started to turn away. Suddenly he turned back. "Hey, Gretchen?"

Gretchen stopped and looked at him. "Hmm?"

Taylor walked back over to the window and stood as close to the house as he could. Reaching up on tiptoes, he gently kissed her cheek. "I’ll see you tomorrow," he cheerfully replied, then took off towards the sidewalk.

.

Chapter 24 - Another One?

"So, did you tell Gretchen about Claudia?"

Taylor stopped brushing his hair, and turned away from the mirror to look at Isaac. "No, why should I? It’s not like I even called Claudia or anything." He shook his head, and resumed fooling with his hair, first pulling it into a ponytail, then letting it fall down around his shoulders.

"Are you gonna call her?" Isaac watched Taylor thoughtfully.

Taylor sighed, and looked back at his brother again. "I don’t know. Maybe. Right now I don’t want to think about her. I want today with Gretchen to be perfect."

"What are you guys doing?"

"I’m taking her to MetroParks. I told you that." Taylor rolled his eyes at Isaac. He really didn’t feel like talking, but Ike had been yapping his ear off all morning. Once again he attempted to finished his hair.

"Are you going to tell Gretchen about Claudia today? Or wait?"

"IKE! I don’t know, okay? Geez, probably not." Fed up with his brothers incessant questions, Taylor grabbed his brush and left the room.

Isaac made a face. "Well someone sure woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning," he grumbled. Leaning back on the desk chair, Isaac looked over at Zac who had been unusually silent all morning. "What’s up with you Zac?"

Zac glanced up from his comic book. "Nothing, why?" he muttered.

"I dunno, you’re just being kinda quiet today."

"Well, Ike. Let me think about it for just a minute. I’m supposed to go play paintball at Eric’s today, the last time I can before we leave, but mom said I have to stay here an do stupid vocabulary because I misspelled four words in my stupid English paper. Here it is a beautiful Sunday afternoon. We get out of church early for once and I have to stay in and do vocabulary. Not only that but I am being forced to go with Taylor to his stupid voice lessons again tonight and I hate it! They aren’t my lessons, but mom and dad say that they think it’s good that I go to, as they put it, "observe". Why? I don’t’ need anyone to teach me how to sing. I sing fine. I don’t’ need some old windbag who thinks she knows everything to show me nothing!" Zac took a deep breath, his face nearly red from the building anger as he thought about his unfair situation.

Isaac just watched his brothers ranting, amused. Zac could turn any situation into something to complain about, and he told him as much.

"Well," Zac said after Ike’s accusation. "It’s all a part of my charm, ya know! Everyone loves me and......."

"Zac! Get down here!"

"Aww man! I knew mom wouldn’t forget about this." Zac sighed. "Well," he stood and dropped his comic book. "If I’m not at the dinner table tonight you know that vocabulary has in fact, killed me." Zac threw his arm over his eyes dramatically. "However, don’t cry for me dear brother, for I......"

"ZACHARY WALKER HANSON! YOU HAVE TEN SECONDS TO GET DOWNSTAIRS OR I AM COMING UP THERE AFTER YOU!"

Zac sighed again, and dropped his arm dejectedly. "This sucks," he muttered and slowly walked out of the room.



"Well......what do you want to do now? We've pretty much gone through everything." Taylor gave Gretchen a thoughtful glance. "Wanna go hang out at your house for awhile?" he suggested.

The two teenagers had spent a great day together at one of the most beautiful sights in Tulsa, the MetroParks. It had huge ponds, trails, swamps, and educational buildings, plus a ton of wildlife took sanction in the park, making for an always exciting animal spotting adventure. And now they sat on a bench in Buttermilk falls, just enjoying the view. Buttermilk Falls was one of the most spectacular sights, for it was a trail that led from one stream of waterfalls to the next. Each bed of water was crystal clear, showing the hard work the city put into keeping it a nice area.

Taylor was in a fabulous mood, because for the first time in their relationship, Gretchen had actually acted like she wanted to be with him, letting him hold her hand as they had looked at all the sights. They now sat close on the bench watching the water in one of the streams, rush over a group of rocks. Taylor was straddling the bench sideways so that he could face Gretchen. He had his hand on her neck and was gently squeezing it.

"Come on, we can play basketball." Taylor leaned in and kissed Gretchen’s shoulder. Then moved his lips to her ear "or we can play "basketball"," he slyly said.

Gretchen sighed, "No we can’t go to my house, my mom isn’t home."

Taylor looked at her wide eyed and feigned disappointment. "Oh man! Your mom isn’t home? Well that settles that, without your mom there we can’t have any fun."

"Taylor, she told me that if she ever found out I had you, or any other boy for that matter, in my house when she wasn’t home, I would never set foot outside of my room again. So, my answer is still no, we can’t go to my house."

"Did you tell her what we did, or something?" Taylor asked, perturbed. He figured that Mrs. Halloran wasn’t stupid, but still. She hadn’t actually seen anything, so she couldn’t really know anything. Or at least Taylor tried to convince himself that she couldn’t really know anything. Unless Gretchen told her........his thought trailed off. Just the idea made him sick.

"Duh....I think it was a little obvious what we were doing. And boy did I get it when you left. She gave me some huge lecture about teenage boys....."

There’s that teenage boys reference again, Taylor bitterly thought.

".....heck, I’m amazed she let me come here with you today. I guess she figured we were going to be in a public place so we couldn’t fool around or anything."

"Who says we can’t fool around in a public place?" Taylor gave her a wicked grin.

"I say we can’t fool around in a public place. That’s really gross."

Taylor sighed. He moved even closer to Gretchen, resting his hand on her thigh and leaning his head against her shoulder. "Can I kiss you?" he whispered.

"No, not here."

Taylor gave her an imploring look. "There’s no one around. Come on, just a little kiss? I’ll be good, I promise."

"Last time you said that, we ended up going a bit further than I would have liked."

Taylor stared at Gretchen and realization dawned on him. "You don’t like kissing me do you?" He moved away from her and turned so that he was sitting facing forward.

"What do you mean by that?" She gave him a dirty look.

"Every time I want to kiss you, you act like I am asking you to kiss a snake or something. I mean I practically had to force you to kiss me at your house the other day, and you kept wanting to stop. Is there something wrong with me that you can’t stand to let me touch you?"

Gretchen looked at the ground, and swung her sneakered feet back and forth. "No, there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s me. I.......I just don’t want to disappoint you."

"Disappoint me? What in the hell are you talking about?"

"I know I’m not pretty like all those other girls, and I know you’ve probably had a ton of girlfriends. Everyday I wonder why you want to hang out with me, or be with me, because nobody ever has before, and I don’t know what I’m doing and I don’t want to do anything wrong and I don’t want to make you mad, and..."

"Hey, listen to me. You don’t have to worry about disappointing me. All I want is to be with you, that makes me happy. Not only that but I haven't had tons of girlfriends. I've never had any girlfriends." Taylor flushed, a little embarressed by his admission. "And don’t ever say you aren’t pretty because you are and cutting yourself down is not cool. Besides," he added. "It’s not only what’s on the outside, and I know that sounds all corny and cliché, but it’s true."

Gretchen looked up at him. "You don’t really believe that do you?"

"Believe what?" Taylor focused his blue eyes hard and locked her in a stare.

"That it’s what’s on the inside that counts.....blah, blah, blah."

Looking away, Taylor tried to keep a straight face. "Of course I do."

"Liar"

"I am not......" he started to say but stopped when Gretchen tentatively brushed her lips to his.

He smiled at her, and leaned in, desperately wanting to quench the desire that had been burning in him all day. He kissed her more aggressively, his tongue playfully dancing with hers.

They broke apart, breathless. "Come on, let’s go to Squire’s Castle." Taylor said offering Gretchen his hand as he stood up.

She took his hand and let him pull her off the bench. "Taylor," she whispered as he started to tug her along.

"What?" He stopped walking and turned to look at her.

Gretchen walked closer and leaned against him, wrapping her arms around his neck, and laying her head on his shoulder. Taylor was beside himself as he hugged her back. When they broke apart, this time Gretchen took his hand and said, "Okay, let’s go to Squire’s Castle."

Taylor smiled. They walked in silence towards the trail that led them to the most amazing sight in the park, Squire’s Castle. It was a small medieval castle that had actually been transported from England to Tulsa in the early 1900’s by a wealthy business man, who had bought it for his fiancee. She had never gotten the chance to live in it though, for she was murdered the day before the castle arrived. Devastated, the man had sold the castle to the city, and ever since then it had been a huge tourist attraction, with it’s many rooms and towers.

When they reached the castle, Taylor dropped Gretchen's hand and gave her a devilish grin. "Come on, let's go have some fun."

Gretchen squinted her eyes and put her hands on her hips. "Why don't I trust that look."

Taylor gave her his best attempt at looking innocent. "You can trust me," he laughed.

Gretchen smiled. "Okay," she answered slowly, following his lead as he took off for the castle's entrance.



"Umm, mom? How much more of this do I have to do?" Zac asked quietly. He had been working on vocabulary words for almost two solid hours, and he seriously thought that if he wasn’t allowed to get up and move around a bit his legs might fall off. If not the worst senario was that he could quite possibly die of boredom.

Mrs. Hanson looked up from her book. "Let me see what you have."

Zac glanced sheepishly down at his paper. The last twenty minutes or so had found him creating a rather large alien Vs turboman adventure in the margins of his notebook. "I did all the pages you said to," he replied, hoping to detour her from wanting to see his paper.

Mrs. Hanson gave Zac a knowing glance. "Let me see," she repeated and held out her hand.

Sighing, Zac stood and handed her his notebook. He looked at the carpet and kicked at the floor with his toe.

Mrs. Hanson glanced over Zac’s work, and raised her eyebrows. "Very interesting. I wasn’t aware the drawing comics in your notebook was part of the assignment." She stared at Zac, trying hard to keep her laughter in. He looked so pathetic.

"Ummm, that was already in there. I didn’t do that just now, I only did vocabulary like you said. I swear. Cross my fingers and hope to die........."

"Zac.....just go." Mrs. Hanson waved him away.

Zac’s eyes grew wide. "REALLY?" he shouted. "THANKS!"

Zac tore out of the living room, and out the front door before his mother could change her mind and make him stay home a minute longer.



After they had fun running from room to room, and disturbing the other visitors to the point of actually having three groups ask them, in a not so nice way, to leave, Taylor took Gretchen home.

As they stood on her door step, Taylor laughed.

"What’s so funny," Gretchen asked.

"I can’t believe all those people were so rude to us," he said snorting.

"Well, what did you expect after you ordered one group to leave this domain before you set you killer dogs on them for trespassing, and told the others that it was illegal to take pictures, because pictures of ugly people could warp the castle's interior and they would have to pay for the damage."

"Yeah, well they were stupid enough to believe me," he joked.

They stood in silence for a moment.

"I had a really great time today," Gretchen said. "More fun than I’ve ever had in my whole life."

"Good. That makes me happy." Taylor stated. "Now, come here." He pulled her to him and pressed his lips to hers.

She wrapped her arms around his neck, and returned his kiss.

Taylor let his hands fall lower and rested them near the back pockets of her jeans. He teased her with his tongue, finally letting it mingle with hers.

Suddenly the front door of Gretchen’s house opened and there stood Mrs. Halloran.

They broke apart quickly, and Taylor looked at the ground, wondering how Gretchen’s mom had such awful timing.

"Mom," Gretchen squeaked. "I thought you were at work."

"I was, I got off early," Mrs. Halloran did not sound pleased. Turning and giving Taylor a harsh glare she added, "Taylor, can you wait here a minute? I have to speak to Gretchen inside."

"Yeah, I’ll wait."

Slowly, Gretchen followed her mother inside the house and the door was closed.

Taylor turned and made himself comfortable on the porch steps, cursing Mrs. Halloran under his breath. "So much for making a better impression this time," he muttered aloud. He absently scratched his knee while he waited. After about ten minutes he was almost ready to get up and go home, when the front door opened and Gretchen came out, her face bright red.

"What was that all about?" Taylor questioned.

"You aren’t going to believe this," Gretchen said. Suddenly she burst out laughing.

Taylor frowned and creased his brow. "What’s so funny?"

Gretchen just laughed harder.



"Ike, catch!"

Isaac looked up from his book to see a small, orange box flying through the air heading right towards him. He managed to catch it before it bonked him on the head. He flipped it over and stared at the word Sheik which was printed on the box. He gave Taylor a menacing glare and said," Is this a joke or something?" He stuck the box under his pillow in case any family members decided to make a surprise appearance in their bedroom.

"No, no joke." Taylor sat at the desk the boys shared and flipped on the computer.

"Then why in the hell are you giving me a box of condoms? And don’t tell me it’s because you’re worried I’m gonna get someone pregnant." Isaac stared at Taylor’s back.

"Nope." Taylor continued to fiddle with the computer, not looking at his brother.

"SO?!?!"

"So what?"

Isaac sighed. "So, why are you giving me condoms? You didn’t buy them did you?"

"No, someone gave them to me. I figured you needed them more than I do, considering you are in a "sexual relationship" and all."

"Geez, keep it down would ya! Who gave these to you?"

Taylor turned and looked at his older brother. "Gretchen," he stated simply, turning back to his work.

Isaac snorted and began to laugh. "Gretchen? Why in the world would Gretchen buy condoms?" Suddenly he trailed off. "You’re not gonna sleep with her are you?"

Taylor swung the desk chair around and faced his brother. "No of course not, geez. And Gretchen didn't buy them...........her mom did."

Isaac couldn’t hold it in and began to laugh even harder. "HER MOM!! HAHA, oh my God, that is too funny!! Why did her mom buy her condoms?"

Taylor just glared at Isaac. Suddenly he flipped off the computer and stood up. Ambling across the room, Taylor sighed. "She hates me. She really really hates me," he declared throwing himself onto his bed.

Isaac glanced over at his brother, who was laying face down on his bed, arms splayed to the sides. "Who hates you? Gretchen?" Isaac snorted. "Is she pissed because her mom bought you guys condoms?"

Taylor sat up and gave Isaac a dirty look. "No dummy. Mrs. Halloran. She hates me."

Isaac squinted his eyes and thought for a moment. "Who’s Mrs. Halloran?" he asked, confused.

"Ike, did you take stupid pills for breakfast? Mrs. Halloran, you know, Gretchen’s mother. Who have I just been talking about? Sheesh." He shook his head and rolled his eyes at his brothers complete lack of mental capacity.

"Very funny," Isaac snapped. Lowering his voice he added, "So, why does she hate you?"

Taylor sighed. "Because. She just hates me."

Isaac nodded. "Thank you so much for clearing that up. I was thoroughly confused, but now with your wonderful way of explaining the situation, I understand completely."

Giving his brother a stern glance, Taylor replied, "Your sarcasm isn’t appreciated."

"Well, what? Are you going to tell me or not?"

"It’s simple really. Her mom, who by the way has impeccable timing for interrupting Gretchen and me when things start to get good, has seen us kissing a couple of times and is convinced I am going to molest her daughter. She thinks we’re having sex and told Gretchen that I can’t force her to do anything and if I do, blah, blah, blah. So anyway, to make a long story short, she hates me, thinks I’m a bad influence ect...." Taylor took a deep breath and buried his face into his pillow.

Isaac frowned. "Umm, Tay? If she hates you so much why did she buy her daughter condoms? You’d think she’d just tell Gretchen that she wasn’t allowed to see you anymore."

Taylor pondered that for a moment. "You know something, I never even thought of that. Maybe she really doesn’t hate me." He smiled, trying to convince himself that his logic made sense.

Isaac shook his head. "No, you're probably right. She does hate you. But she probably figures that Gretchen is going to keep seeing you anyway and to avoid having her daughter sneak out and be corrupted by you, she’s going to keep tabs on everything you guys do."

Taylor sat up and stared at Isaac. "Wow, Ike. It’s a good thing I have you around to lift my spirits and make me feel better. I just don’t know what I would do without you. Really. I mean it." Taylor laid the sarcasm on thick as syrup.

Isaac rolled his eyes. "Hey, pal. I only tell it like it is."

Before Taylor could respond, they were interrupted.

"Hey Tay!" Zac shouted as he burst into the room.

Taylor groaned and laid back down. "Taylor isn’t in right now. If you’d like to leave a message wait for the beep and he’ll get back to you as soon as possible. BEEP."

Zac stared at his brother. "Umm.......what?"

"Forget it. What do you want," Taylor muttered.

"Number one we have to get ready to go to your lesson. Number two where’s that one shirt? The black one with the white stripes. I want to take it with us on the trip."

Sitting up suddenly, Taylor jumped off his bed and headed for the dresser. "No way Zac. You always take that shirt. It’s mine and I’m not letting you borrow it."

Zac pouted and gave his brother a pleading look. "Taaaaay, you never hardly wear it. I like that shirt. Come on.... please?"

Isaac sighed. "Why is it that no kid in this family can just say something? They have to whine. I am so sick of kids whining, and now they’re going to have another one."

Zac’s eyes got wide. "What do you mean, have another one?" He turned to stare at Isaac.

"Are you guys really that stupid? It’s obvious that mom is pregnant. AGAIN."

"Awww, man," Zac groaned and flopped himself onto Taylor’s bed.

Taylor frowned and slammed the dresser drawer shut. "I knew it," he spat. "I knew that she was pregnant. This sucks. There’s already six of us. Where are they going to put it?"

"In their room, where else," Isaac answered.

"Man, I don’t believe this. Another one." Zac was not happy. Suddenly he got up and raced from the room.

Taylor looked over at Isaac. "Where do you think he’s going?"

Isaac shrugged. "With Zac, who knows." Putting a devilish grin on his face, Isaac stood up. "You know something, this could get very interesting. Let’s go watch."

Taylor grinned. "You think he’s gonna spaz about this?"

Isaac laughed. "Who Zac? Spaz? NEVER!"

"Very very true. Let’s go."

The two boys left the room, and headed downstairs, waiting for the fireworks to begin.

.

Chapter 25 - Look Out Europe! Here Comes Hanson

"Where’s he going?" Isaac stared after his younger brother, confused.

"I have no clue," Taylor answered.

The boys were standing in the living room, watching Zac tear across the backyard, heading for the woods behind their house. Both boys had expected their brother to blow up. However they had been mildly surprised to see Zac storm out of the house instead.

Isaac turned to look at Taylor. "That kid kills me. Where does he think he’s going? He’s gonna be in big trouble when mom and dad find out he took off." Isaac snickered. "Oh well, too bad for him I guess."

"You’d really think he’d be used to it by now. I mean he does have three younger siblings. You’d think he’d be immune." Taylor shook his head.

Isaac rolled his eyes. "Oh, like you weren’t a little pissed when I told you?"

Taylor sized Isaac up. "No, I wasn’t pissed. I merely am worried about the ratio of people VS room in this house. I mean we already have you, me and Zac in one room. Jessie and Avie in another. And mom and dad still have to share with Mackie. Makes you wonder where there gonna stick the squirt when the new baby comes."

Isaac just shrugged his shoulders.

"Well," Taylor stated. "They better not think about putting him in our room. It’s already crowded enough as it is in there, what with all the junk you and Zac have."

Isaac raised his eyebrows. "Us? Who’s the guy who infested the room with ants and we had to sleep in the living room for three days while exterminators fumigated the room because he just had to keep his crappy old candy collection where it would attract bugs? If I can recall this incident correctly, I think that kids name was...." Isaac put his head in his hands. "Don’t tell me............TAYLOR! Yes, I do believe that was his name."

Taylor just glared at Isaac. "Whatever," he grumbled. Taking one last look out the window, and not seeing Zac anywhere, Taylor shook his head and walked out of the living room, leaving Isaac to laugh at himself over his little bug joke.



Zac knew exactly where he was going. He was headed for the one person he knew would share his feelings. The one person who would agree that having another baby was a very bad idea. The one person who would tell him that he was so right to be upset about the whole situation. The one person who would reassure him that when the new baby did come, he wouldn’t have to share a room with it, or with Mackie. The one person who would tell him what he already knew.....his mom was just to old to have another baby.

Zac ran up the front steps at the Fletcher home, and pounded on the door. Mr. Fletcher opened the door, and stared in amusement at the flushed, blond kid who was panting, nearly unable to breath.

"Hey Zac."

Zac looked up. "Is.......Marie......home?" he managed to gasp out.

Mr. Fletcher laughed. "Yeah. Why don’t you come in and catch your breath. Did you run the whole way here?"

Still gasping, Zac only managed to nod.

"Well it must be something really important to make you run all the way here." Mr. Fletcher led Zac to the living room, and pointed to the couch.

Grateful, Zac flopped onto the couch and wiped the sweat trickling down his face with the back of his arm. He heard Mr. Fletcher calling Marie, and took deep breaths so he would be able to actually talk and not just pant in her face.

"Hey Zac. What’s up?" Marie took one look at Zac’s bright red face, hitching chest from trying to breath normally, and the sweat trickling down his face and snickered.

"Don’t laugh." He put his head in his hands and spoke more to himself than her. "I’m suffering a crisis here, and she’s laughing at me."

"Okay, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to laugh." Marie walked over and joined Zac on the couch. "What’s the big crisis?"

Zac looked up. "Let’s go outside. I want to talk in private."

"Is this really that bad?" Marie was suddenly concerned.

"Yes," Zac solemnly stated. "It is that bad."

"Wow. Umm, okay, let’s go." She stood and held her hand out to Zac, helping him off the couch and led him to the backyard.



Mrs. Hanson stuck her head into the boys bedroom. "Where’s your brother?" She asked Isaac who was sitting at the desk.

"Which one? I have three you know," Isaac reminded her.

"Zac. He was supposed to go with your dad and Taylor, and now he’s disappeared.

Isaac shrugged. "I don’t know. I haven’t seen him since this afternoon."

Mrs. Hanson frowned. "You haven’t seen him at all?"

"No. He ran off awhile ago. I don’t know where he went."

Sighing, Mrs. Hanson turned to leave the room. "Probably took off for a friends house. I tell you that boy is going to drive me insane. He knows better than to just leave without a asking. He knew he was supposed to go to Tay’s lesson."

"Do you blame the kid for taking off? I would too if I was forced to go sit through a voice lesson with Taylor." Isaac informed his mother.

"Very funny, Ike." She stopped in the doorway. "Do you think I should be worried about him?"

Isaac shrugged. "Nahh, don’t panic until you get a phone call from the police."

Mrs. Hanson laughed. "That would be just fabulous, wouldn’t it? I swear I need to keep him on a leash." Shaking her head, Mrs. Hanson headed back down the stairs.



"I really don’t see what you’re so worked up about."

Zac rolled his eyes. He couldn’t believe Marie wasn’t agreeing with him. "Well of course you don’t. You don’t have to share your room with two other people. You’ve never been woken up in the middle of the night because some stupid baby is crying. Of course you don’t understand."

Marie frowned. "Zac, I do understand. But I really don’t think it’s that big of a deal. Babies are cute."

Zac snorted. "Come say that after you’ve seen a dirty diaper."

Marie smiled. "No thanks."

"See, exactly. Babies are all cute and everything until you remember that they smell and cry and make huge gross messes and ruin your stuff and break things. You have to baby proof the whole house you know. Can’t leave anything out. I don’t’ think I’ll ever live in a house where you don’t have to pry the little plastic thing out of the socket to plug in something." Zac sighed. "Besides," he added. "Where are we gonna put it? We don’t have any room."

"Won’t it just stay with your mom and dad?" Marie asked.

"Probably, but then where’s Mackie going to sleep? There’s no way they can fit Mackie’s bed and a crib in their room and still have enough space to walk. Which means, Mac might get put in our room. If that happens I’ll have to kill myself. It’s bad enough I have to share everything with Tay and Ike. But with four people in the room, things could get bad. Very bad."

"Awww, poor baby," Marie cooed. She walked over and wrapped her arms around his neck. Leaning up she lightly kissed his cheek. "There, does that help?" She gave him a playful smile.

Zac squinted. "I dunno. Let me think about it." He pretended to be deep in thought. That was until Marie hit him. "OWW," he shouted, rubbing his sore arm. "What did ya do that for?"

Before Marie could answer, Zac had pressed his lips against hers. When they broke apart, he stared into her eyes. "I’m leaving the day after tomorrow you know," he whispered.

Marie nodded. "I know."

Zac sighed. "I’m gonna miss home. We’re going to be gone for a long time."

"I know. I’m going to miss you." Marie hugged Zac tightly.

"I’ll miss you too," he answered, his face buried in her shoulder.

"Know what?" Marie said, as she lightly twirled a piece of Zac’s hair around her fingers. "You should braid your hair again. Like you did when you were on the Jenny McCarthy show."

Zac looked up. "You think so?"

"Yeah. You looked really cute that way."

Zac frowned. "Cute? Yuck. I don’t want to look cute."

"Well, you are cute so deal with it." Marie laughed at Zac’s disgusted look.

"Cute my foot," he spit out. "I’m not cute. I’m........" Zac racked his brains for a moment. "Oh my God. I am cute aren’t I? I think I’m going to make myself sick. Too much cuteness has been proven to kill people."


Marie laughed. "Well don’t worry. I think people will be too busy talking about what a weirdo you are, to die from your cuteness."

Zac let out a sigh of relief, and pretended to wipe his brow. "Thank God. I certainly don’t need to be the cause of a mass suicide."

"You’re so modest aren’t you?"

Zac smiled smugly. "I try."

Marie hugged him again. "Don’t go," she whispered into his ear.

"I have to. I’ll send you postcards, and bring you souvenirs and stuff."

"I’d rather have you here."

Zac lightly kissed her cheek. "I have to go home. I’m gonna get in trouble. I was supposed to go to Tay’s lesson."

"Will I see you again before you leave?" Marie clung to his shirt sleeve.

"Of course. I’m gonna come say bye to you." Glancing at his watch, Zac whistled. "I really have to go." He took off across the yard at a trot. Stopping once he looked over his shoulder and waved. Man, why is it something I wanted so much, comes at a time when I want something else more? Not wanting to think about it anymore, Zac headed for home.



"Mom. You’re kinda pulling my hair here," Zac complained.

Zac had returned, in a little bit of a better mood, from Marie’s house. That was until he got home and had to endure a lecture from his mother. He had been forced to repeat after her that if he ever ran off again without permission his mother had the right to beat him senseless. And yes he promised never to do it again because his mother really didn’t need to suffer a heart attack. After pretending to feel guilty about taking off -- he really wasn’t guilty because he was still a little peeved about this whole seventh baby thing-- his mom had commanded him to sit in the kitchen chair so she could braid his hair like he had asked.

"Well, stop squirming and sit still then." Mrs. Hanson gently tugged at a piece of her son’s blond hair.

"Mom, you have to know it’s impossible for me to sit still. That’s so boring," Zac moaned as he shifted once again.

Putting her hands on his shoulders, Mrs. Hanson gave him a firm push. "Now stay like that."

Zac sighed. "How much longer is this gonna take?"

"Zac! I’ve only done ten braids. Now do you want your hair done or not?" Mrs. Hanson was getting very frustrated.

"Geez," he muttered. Leaning forward, he set his chin in his hands. A tug on his hair from behind caused him to sit up again and shout, "OUCH!"

"Well sit up then."

"Man mom. Just pull every last strand of hair out of my head why don’t ya!"

"Zachary, so help me. I’m not going to finish this if you don’t pipe down."

Zac sighed again. "Sorry," he murmured. After sitting in silence, and doing his best to not move, which was very hard for an especially hyper eleven year old, Zac couldn’t take it anymore. He had to move. Shifting slightly, hopeing to not disturb his mother’s work, Zac reached down and absently scratched his leg. "Soooo, mom. Is there something you think you should tell me?" he asked, adopting his parents favorite form of prying into someone else’s business.

"Like what?"

"Oh I don’t know. Are you expecting something anytime soon?"

Mrs. Hanson stopped braiding and looked at Zac. "Like what?" she repeated.

"Like, umm, gee, I don’t know. Another screaming, whining, little brat." Zac’s nose crinkled at the thought.

Mrs. Hanson laughed. "Oh you mean am I planning on having another kid like you? No, Zac we aren’t planning on cloning you anytime soon."

"MOOOM!" Zac complained.

"KIIIID!" she answered right back.

"Mom, come on. I’m being serious here. Are you guys gonna have another baby? I mean come on, don’t you think six is enough?"

"Zac, what makes you think I’m pregnant?" She waited with interest for his answer.

"Ike and Tay told me. Besides, I would have figured it out eventually. It’s not like I haven’t experienced this three times already," Zac informed her.

"Well, your dad and I haven’t told anyone yet, but yes. I’m pregnant."

"Mom!" A voice shouting from the doorway startled them. "Where exactly do you think you’re gonna stick this kid?" Just arriving home from his lesson, Taylor overheard his mother and Zac talking.

"Well Tay," Mrs. Hanson turned to face Taylor who was standing in the door frame. "We were thinking of just chaining the baby in the basement."

"Ohhh, mom. Good one." Taylor rolled his eyes. "You should take that act on the road."

Ignoring her son's sarcasam, Mrs Hanson only said,"Don’t worry about that now. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it."

Eyeing his squirming brother, Taylor’s eyes lit up. "I have an idea," he stated, heading for the refrigerator. "We could drop Zac off the bridge when we cross it. Then we’ll have more room and a quieter house." He laughed and popped the tab on his can of soda.

"TAYLOR!" Zac shouted and attempted to get up, but his mother had a hold of his hair and he was stuck in his seat.

"Sit mister," she commanded. "And Taylor, that wasn’t very nice."

Not bothering to take the not nice comment into consideration, Taylor went on. "Mom, don’t take this the wrong way, but haven’t you and dad ever heard of birth control? I mean condoms are about 98% effective if used properly," he stated with a grin, proud of his knowledge.

Mrs. Hanson dropped he piece of hair she was working on and turned to face her fourteen year old son.

"Jordan Taylor, I cannot believe you just said that."

"What?" Taylor shook his head and took a drink of his soda. "It’s not like I don’t know about sex." Rolling his eyes, he walked towards the doorway. Suddenly he turned back to scrutinize his mother. "Maybe you should look into having your tubes tied."

"THAT’S IT! I don’t want to hear anymore from you!" Mrs. Hanson pointed to the doorway.

All right, all right," Taylor innocently held his hands up. As he walked out of the kitchen a gruesome thought crossed his mind.

Babies are made when two people have sex. Mom is pregnant. Therefore her and dad still....... "Oh gross!" he said aloud. Shivering at the thought, Taylor climbed the stairs to confront Isaac with his sudden realization.

"Our parents are having sex." Taylor stated, climbing onto his bed and leaning against the wall.

Isaac turned and gave Taylor a funny look. "What? You mean right now?"

"Oh my God NO!" Taylor yelled. "That’s really sick Ike."

"Well, when you walk in and say our parents are having sex, what else am I supposed to think." Isaac rolled his eyes at his brother.

"NO! They are not having sex right this very second. I meant, they still do it. I just realized this and now I am completely grossed out."

Isaac laughed out loud.

"What?" Taylor gave Isaac a disgusted look.

"Tay....it took you four younger brothers and sisters to figure that one out?" Isaac managed to choke out between fits of laughter.

Taylor frowned. "Shut up," he muttered. "Let’s just drop it. This is gross."

"Oh do we have to? I mean I was really enjoying this ever so exciting look into our parents sexlife."

"Man, why do I bother to tell you anything?" Taylor gave Isaac a dirty look.

Isaac shrugged. "Because you have no friends?" he suggested helpfully. Seeing the pissed expression on Taylor’s face, Isaac figured he better drop it. "Oh by the way. Did dad tell you we’re leaving two days early for Europe?"

Taylor groaned. "Why?"

"I dunno. Something about meeting up with some PR people from Mercury and staying at some hotel or another together. Either way we’re leaving Wednesday instead of Friday."

Taylor sighed. "PR people? More? I hate those people."

Isaac nodded. "Me too, they’re kind of a pain. But hey, they’re the ones who set up half of the stuff we do, so we have to appreciate them a little bit."

Taylor stood. "No we don’t," he muttered, leaving the room.



The next day at the Hanson house had been complete chaos. Getting six kids and two adults ready for a month long trip was no easy task. Complete with the fact that four of the six kids each had about a million friends they just had to say good bye to or they would have spontaniously combusted. Finally, with everyone packed, Wednesday morning found the whole clan airborne.



"This is so great." Taylor’s face was nearly busting from the huge grin plastered on it. Despite the fact that when he had gone to say good bye to Gretchen, Mrs. Halloran had refused to let them be alone, even for two minutes, and when Taylor had suggested that they go for a walk, she had refused to let her daughter leave the house, he was still feeling pretty good about this whole Europe thing. Mainly because, for a month at least, he was free from the horrible torture he was put through every Monday, or what his parents called........his voice lessons.

Isaac slowly rolled his head, which was leaning against the seat rest, to look at his overzealous brother. "Hmmm?" Half asleep, he had only heard a mumble from Taylor.

"I said this is so great. We’re going to be in Europe for a whole month. That means no voice lessons for a whole month. No smelly Miss Evans for a whole month!" Taylor gave a toothy grin to Isaac.

Isaac just stared at his brother. Finally, rolling his eyes, he turned his head and continued to stare out the window.

Taylor frowned. "Well you’re no fun," he informed Isaac.

Turning back to Taylor, Isaac gave him a huge fake smile. "I’m so sorry I find it hard to share your joy at five in the morning. How could I be so thoughtless. I am sooooo excited for you I can hardly stand it!" Isaac finished his sarcasm and turned once again to the planes window.

"You know something Ike? You suck. I’m not sitting by you anymore." Pouting at his brothers complete lack of shared enthusiasm for something that Taylor felt was a big deal, he decided to find someone who would appreciate his joy. Taylor made his way back two rows to where Zac was sitting, absently doodling in his scratch pad. Plopping into the seat next to his brother, Taylor looked over and asked, "Whatcha drawing?"

Not bothering to look up from his work, Zac replied, "Stuff."

"Whoooa, sounds pretty cool." Taylor rolled his eyes. Seeing he wasn’t going to get anywhere with Zac either, Taylor sat back and frowned. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Zac’s open back pack on the planes floor. Pulling the pack closer, Taylor grabbed out Zac’s portable CD player. Putting the headphones on, he fired up the CD that was inside. Two seconds later Taylor nearly had a heart attack when his ears were nearly blown clear off his head and lowered the volume about a million decibels. After a few moments, Taylor realized what he was listening to and disgustedly ripped the headphones off. Tossing the whole lot back into Zac’s bag, Taylor frowned.

I nearly went deaf for that? he thought. Reaching over, Taylor tapped Zac’s arm. "Hey, Zac. I though we worked out that whole Amy Grant fetish you had."

Zac’s head darted up. "What......what are you talking about?"

Taylor gave his brother a sympathetic look. "Don’t worry. One day you’ll get some sort of taste in music," he kidded.

Zac wasn’t amused. "Oh really Tay? Well let us not forget that whole Debbie Gibson obsession someone had when he was younger."

Taylor’s face grew red. "Who told you about that?" he hissed, knowing full well who had spilled the beans. Ike is going down for this one, he thought.

Zac just gave Taylor a smug smile. "I never reveal my sources." With that, he returned his attention to his sketch pad.

Taylor sighed. This sucks. A giggle from the seats behind him caught Taylor’s attention. Turning he kneeled on his seat and looked into the row behind him.

Jessica and Avery look up at their brother. "What do you want?" Jessie asked.

"What are you guys doing?" Taylor was getting pretty desperate. He had only been on the plane half an hour and was already bored out of his mind. He was willing to play anything, including tea party if it came down to that in order to make the almost nine hour flight go by faster.

"Nothing. Boys aren’t invited," Jessie informed him snootily.

"Well excuse me," Taylor replied. Turning, he flopped back into his seat and crossed his arms. This is gonna be one long flight.



"Are we there yet?"

"NO! Zac we aren’t there yet! If we were there.......we would BE THERE!!!" Taylor finished yelling and flopped back against his seat. He had just endured a nine hour plane ride in which he had been snapped at forty seven times by flight attendants to stay in his seat, yelled at six times by his mother for complaining about the food on the flight, and had seen Zac get airsick not once, but twice. Now he was shoved in a van with his whole family, plus two PR people from Mercury, and Zac had asked the dreaded question eight times already in the span of one and a half hours.

"Taylor, there’s no need to shout," his mother reminded him.

"Well I’m sorry, but if I hear out of his mouth one more time "Are we there yet" I’m gonna have to hurt him."

"Are we there yet?" Zac retorted, sticking his tongue out at Taylor.

"That’s it!" Taylor lunged for Zac, only stopping when his seatbelt dug into his stomach, nearly knocking the wind out of him.

Zac snickered. "See that’s what you get, dum dum."

"Taylor stop trying to kill your brother. Zac stop taunting him. I swear, you two act more and more juvenile every trip we go on." Mrs. Hanson was ready to jump in the back of the van and strangle Taylor and Zac herself if they didn’t cut out the bickering. And they still had over an hour left to drive.

Taylor glared at Zac before returning his attention to the pages of his book. It was about twenty minutes later that he began to notice the buzzing noise. "What is that?" he wondered aloud.

"What’s what Tay?" his father asked.

"That buzzing noise." Taylor listened for a moment. "There it is again. What is that?"

Mr. Hanson turned the radio down. "Be quiet everyone for a minute."

The van fell amazingly silent for being filled with six kids and four adults. Not a sound, save for breathing and the tires on the highway were heard.

"You’re hearing things Tay," Isaac said after a minute.

Taylor shrugged. "I know I heard something buzzing."

Mr. Hanson just shook his head and flipped the radio back on.

It wasn’t more than five minutes later that Taylor’s head shot up from his book. "MOM! Make him stop!" He turned and punched Zac in the arm.

"Taylor! Enough!"

"But he’s buzzing in my ear!" Taylor protested.

Mrs. Hanson turned to look back at Zac. "Zachary? Are you buzzing in your brothers ear?"

Zac gave his mother an innocent smile. "Why would I do that?"

Taylor narrowed his eyes. "Just cause you know it’s gonna drive me insane. I know you did it. I could see your throat moving," he accused.

"LIAR! I wasn’t doing anything! You just want to get me in trouble!"

"I can’t take this anymore!" Isaac’s shout startled everyone. "I’m going to sit in back with the girls! They’re more mature than you two." Isaac angrily unclasped his seatbelt and joined Jessica and Avery in the back of the van.

"See what you did?" Zac informed Taylor, returning the punch.

"ZAC! Knock it off!"

"Boy I sure am glad that Mercury decided to have us all ride in the same car," one of the PR directors announced from her position in the middle seats.

"Oh just wait. It gets even better," Isaac disgustedly informed her. "You haven’t seen anything yet."

The poor woman just gave him a weak smile. "Great," she muttered. Turning to stare out the window, she whispered. "Look out Europe. Here comes Hanson."