Disclaimers: Mine, not yours. Enjoy.

Sex: Yep.

If you'd like to tell me what a wonderful writer I am or that I royally suck, feel free at: XenaNut@hotmail.com

Reunion

by

Kim Pritekel

Sitting back into the cushions of the couch, I tapped the side of my laptop, chewing on my bottom lip. Fingertip scrolling, I looked to see who else had been contacted, and who had accepted.

Ten years, the class of 1995, era of the grunge, the flannel shirt and the year Xena started. Where had it all gone?

Eyes leaving the screen, I stared up to see one of my two cats staring at me, his lazy blue eyes hooded, about to fall asleep again. Turning twenty-nine in June, and I thought about where my life was now.

I had a nice house that was filled with beautiful things. I had a great car, and two crazy felines. Was this where I had pictured myself my senior year of high school? Where had I seen myself? An award-winning screenwriter?

Nah, in high school I had still wanted to be an actress, strutting my stuff to the applause of my peers on the stage. I sang and acted my way into the hearts of my fellow students all and their parents.

I smiled, remembering how my dad would rush his day, horribly long days, delivering Coca-Cola products around town, running into the auditorium of my high school to sit next to my mom and sister, who had saved him a seat. My biological father and paternal grandmother would be sitting either further down the aisle or a row or two behind. My mom would get there thirty minutes to an hour early just to save the best seats, front row, dead center.

Looking back to my computer screen, I realized that my goals and dreams had changed quite a bit since those days. I no longer wanted to be on stage or screen, but behind it all, calling the shots, either via director's chair, or as the screen or playwright.

I was still writing; everyone knew me as a writer in school. Since late elementary school, I always carried a notebook with me, jotting down some random scene in some crazy, childish idea I'd come up with. I never used to let anyone read my work, save for my older sister once in a while. Three years older, and a lifetime wiser, I always thought. I never bothered showing my mom my work. She used to tell me that it was a nice hobby, and that was all.

Well, when my first novel hit the New York Times' Best Seller list, I took a copy of the thing, opened it to the first page, where the title and my name were, and signed a copy for her- Some hobby, eh mom?

I hate to brag, but six years later, I still have huge royalty checks coming, and four other books to join the first. My mom didn't quite understand that slap, and instead took it literally. But then she often doesn't see things she doesn't want to see.

Now, ten years and three states later, I am invited to my class reunion. The class reunion for Pueblo County High School, or hick Heaven, as I've always called it. I literally went to school with guys who drove big pick up trucks, a gun rack mounted to the back window. Cowboy hat hair was a common occurrence, and no one thought the better of it.

Surrounded by acres and acres of fields, farms and gardens, I was isolated as a kid. My parents were gone all the time, working a ton of jobs apiece, my sister and I left to our own devices. We were good kids, every parent's wet dream, really.

I wondered if any of those couple hundred kids that I graduated with will even remember me? I had few friends, save for a small, but close-knit group. We were freaks, the outcasts of the school; the group that no one knew what to do with. I hung out with the theater people, speech and debate people, and those who had no identity.

That was me. I didn't know who I was, where I belonged, except for when I was on the stage, or had a pen in my hand. Only then did I truly understand the boundaries and depth of my soul and what it was capable of.

I'm still the same way, except now I know that I had my identity all along- I was a creator, using my imagine and the world around me as my canvas, painting what I saw through my eyes, and what my mind's eye saw. I sat off by myself, ever since I knew what being alone was, and would watch people. Hell, that started clear back when I was two years old.

When my parents were still married, my mom worked as a dental hygienist, my sister already in school, and my father worked the graveyard shift at his job at the power plant. I was left alone. I remember a golden hue in the house, as all the blinds were pulled down over all the windows, casting these strange colors and hues over everything. We had this massive dining room table with thick, sturdy legs.

I was afraid, see. Only two years old and left all alone as my dad slept upstairs, or talking on the phone to the woman he was having an affair with.

I'd pull open the cabinet under the sink in the kitchen, ruffle around until I found the feather duster, one of those kind that has a wooden handle on it, about a foot long. So, feather duster in hand, I'd waddle my way back to the dining room and plop down under that dining room table, letting my imagination fly. That duster would cease to be that, and would become a paddle, and suddenly I was in a canoe, paddling through waters that I'd never seen before. Or it would become a wing on an airplane, and I'd be flying through the air. I'd grin, little baby teeth white like pearls, my eyes looking squinty behind very thick glasses. I was free, and no longer afraid.

I guess that imagination and need to create had never left me. Still going strong.

Very few people understood me as I grew up. I was different in ways that I understood, and didn't understand at the same time. I remember precisely when my first recognized sexual crush happened- I was five and watching 'The Blue Lagoon' with Brooke Shields. As I watched her traipsing along that island with Christopher Atkins, I knew I was in love, and my little heart went pitter patter.

Those feelings never left me. My crushes moved in from Brooke to Olivia Newton-John, especially from her 'Xanadu' days. Then it went on to Michelle Pfeiffer's Stephanie Zinone. I loved watching her straddle that ladder during her "Cool Rider" number.

I even played 'house' with a neighbor girl for two years. It started when I was nine and she ten. My sister caught us once, and I think she told my mom, though she swore she never would. I got whipped that day and grounded, though I was never told why.

So confused during those early days, I'd retreat into my own head, into the world I could create and understand. I was the master, and chose who was accepted and who wasn't.

All this had happened before I'd even reached middle school.

When I was six, my family moved to a suburb of Denver, and we lived there for six years. At the age of twelve, confused already as teenager-hood crept up on me, my parents decided it was time to pack up the family and move back to Pueblo. So we did.

Starting a new school in December of my sixth grade year, which in Pueblo translated to middle school, where I'd been in elementary school for my last year in Denver. Talk about a culture shock!

Thrust into the world of evolving cliques and lockers, I was even more of an outcast then I had been in Denver. These kids had all gone to school together since the age of zygote. I was an outsider, and outsiders were not permitted; especially those who were gawky, tall and quiet.

A girl was assigned to show me around the school on my first day, and I was so grateful to her. Natalie Smith, was her name. I hoped that maybe, just maybe, Natalie and I could be friends. Not to be. See, Natalie was part of the popular crowd. And though she was very nice to me, it just wasn't in the popular handbook to take a new, geeky kid under your wing. I didn't have a thousand bucks to buy my way into being liked as Patrick Dempsey did in 'Can't Buy Me Love'. Not that I would have wanted to. I saw them all as sheep, and had no interest in being a shepherd.

The house we moved into was a very small two bedroom located about three blocks away from the drive-in movie theater. During summer nights if you kept your window open, you could hear them playing.

I met and became friends with a girl across the street. Jennifer. She was the eldest child, her sister more than ten years younger, and she and I hit it off. We would jump on our bikes and roam around the neighborhood, hitting the convenience store down by the drive-in, and think we were big because we could buy ourselves something, usually a pop or candy of some sort. I didn't oft have spending money, but when I did, oh, it was a good day!

Two houses down from me was a goddess. Her name was Alley. I had seen her several times at school, of course, but hadn't talked to her. She was friends with Natalie Smith and Sally Webb, Travis Jordan, Melanie Wilson, and well, I could go on and on. Basically to make a short story long, all the kids that I didn't stand a chance with.

One hot summer night, the summer before eighth grade, I was over Jennifer's house, and her older male cousin was down with his friend, Rick. Jennifer had a massive crush on Rick, so we, she and I, were hanging out outside her house, and were trying to find way sot peek into the windows so she could watch Rick unfettered, without being seen by her cousin Jack or Jennifer's parents.

The way her house was set up was to get to the front door, you had to climb four cement stairs to a cement porch, so all the windows were set higher. We couldn't see into them from the ground. We had to get onto the porch and lean our lanky bodies over, stretching further then to get a tiniest glimpse inside.

We were doing just that when we heard,

"What are you guys doing?"

I nearly fell off the porch into the ring of bushes that surrounded them.

"Shh!" Jennifer hissed, finger to her overly full lips.

"Spying," I said, hopping down from the porch, over the bushes, and falling to one knee on the grass. I missed the sprinkler by about six inches. Bad memories. When I was seven my step-dad had been doing the airplane, you know, where a big person has you by one foot and a hand, and swing you around in circles? Well, he did that, put me down, and I tried to get up. Dizzy, I fell back down, slamming my elbow into the sprinkler head, dislocating it. The cold weather still bothers it.

Alley hurried over to me, kneeling. "Who are you guys spying on?" She flicked her long, blonde hair behind a shoulder. I swallowed, feeling that summer heat starting to do a doozey to the armpits of my t-shirt. I wasn't willing to admit that it was Alley who was making me hot under the collar.

"Jennifer's cousin's friend."

Green eyes looked at me, then up at my friend who was still trying to sneak a peek.

"Jennifer?" Jennifer's mom called, scaring the girl half to death. She did fall into the bushes. "Time to come in now!"

Trying to stifle our laughter as the girl climbed out of the bushes, me laughing way too hard to help her, we ducked away sneaking out into the darkness. One thing about living out in the county was there were no street lights to speak of. The streets were dark, and easy to hide in.

Hunched over, we ran across Jennifer's yard, across the street, and into the Dodge's yard. David and Alice Dodge, a young couple who lived with their five children, in the house that separated my house from Alley's.

We lost our battle with our bottled laughter, and both nearly busted a gut. I was leaning on the Dodge's mailbox with one hand, the other holding my stomach. Alley wasn't in any better shape.

"I can't believe she fell in the bushes," the blonde hissed, making my laughter start all over again.

Finally getting ourselves under control, we headed toward Alley's house, where the garage was open, the light and music from a radio spilling out into the night. Alley's older brother, Collin, ws working on his beloved Trans Am. I had seen the car cruise up and down the street, the smell of burning rubber always accompanying it. I was just waiting for the day when he finally hit some kid who was running out into the street to get an escaped ball, or plowed into the many street football games the neighborhood had.

He glanced up at me, then went directly back to his task.

I was nervous as hell. Alley had smiled at me before in the neighborhood, or in the crowded halls at school, but it was just being polite, since we lived so close together. We weren't friends by any stretch of the imagination, and our worlds were galaxies away.

Alley was a cheerleader at the middle school, and word was that she'd be a shoe in come high school. I'd see her and her fellow popular, beautiful, cheerleading friends in her front yard, practicing their jumps and moves.

Now, standing in her driveway, not four feet from her house, I was so nervous. I was sweating even more, my feet fidgeting, sweaty palms stuck into the pockets of my shorts.

"Is that guy cute that Jennifer was trying to see?" Alley asked, sitting on the small cement planter that ran the length of the front of her house, only interrupted by the garage door, then continuing on to disappear around the side of the house.

I shrugged, looking up into the starry sky. "I guess." I glanced at her to see that she had folded her legs up, sitting Indian style, hands tucked into the small chasm her legs and body made.

I had to look away. She was so beautiful- blonde hair pushed back over her shoulders, big, green eyes looking up at me with innocent curiosity.

"He must be something. She fell in the bushes for him." She grinned, that innocence blown in that one evil smirk. I also grinned, looking down at my Nikes.

"I think she was startled by her mom." I muttered, heard her click her tongue.

"I know, Hunter. I was teasing." She looked up at me through her bangs, not meaning to be coy, but coy all the same. I was grateful that the darkness could hide my blush. I felt the heat of said blush from my toes all the way up to the top of my head.

"I'm going to go in. I'm getting eaten up by mosquitoes," she said, slapping a pest that had decided to make her forearm a banquet.

Disappointed and relieved all at once, I looked up at her. "Okay. Um, see you later." I gave her a quick smile, pushing a few locks of hair out of my face as I turned and walked back down her driveway, cutting across the Dodge's yard. About halfway across I heard Alley's screen door slam.

That had been the first time I'd ever had a conversation with her, and I think the only reason I had been able to spend any sort of time with her was because it was dark. It hid my nervousness, hid her beauty from me, though it was imprinted in my mind's eye.

From that day on, Alley would always say hi to me in the halls, and not just smile. Then the horror of all horrors happened; she invited me to her birthday party.

I wanted so badly to say no, but I also wanted so badly to fit in. I was deluding myself. Needless to say, I went.

It was a girl/boy party, and that made me even more nervous. From an unfortunate meeting with a rather unsavory character when I'd been a young child, I was afraid of the male species, and was not a fan of them. Certainly not cocky, hormonal assholes that I went to school with.

They ignored me, except to rake their eyes over my parts, which unfortunately was forming far faster than my counterparts. Their eyes would always make it up as far as my face, eyes still covered by thick glasses that would cause permanent scars on the sides of my nose from their weight, and stop. Then the teasing would begin.

Oh yes, I heard it all- skyscraper, four-eyes, and my most hated, chocolate chip. I had a small mole on the side of my face that I begged my mother to let me get removed when I was sixteen.

So, I sat on a corner of Alley's mom's back porch, cup of punch in my hand. Alley's friends chatted and laughed, some dancing to Guns N Roses that played through the speakers of Alley's ghetto blaster.

"You okay, Hunter?" Toni, Alley's mom, asked me, sitting her ample bulk down on the stoop next to me. I had always really liked Toni, feeling very comfortable with her. I shrugged.

"I just don't really fit in here, you know?"

"Yeah. You're welcome to come in and watch wrestling with me and Collin," she offered, nudging me with her shoulder. I smiled, looking down into my cup, then shook my head.

"No thank you, Mrs. Simon. I'm okay here."

"Alright. If you change your mind." She smiled and winked, then with a painful sounding groan, stood, heading back into the house.

Alone again, I watched as pairs began to move off into the darker parts of the backyard. I was shocked and stunned, considering we were all only in the eighth grade. Guess it was my own young, nave sensibilities.

"Hi." Alley said, plopping down beside me. I turned to her, my stomach flopping over. Every time I saw her I'd realize more how beautiful the girl really was. She glowed, a shining star in this, the darkest of June nights.

"Hi." I managed to get a smile, then turned away. I felt her eyes on me, and looked at her, feeling very uncomfortable under her scrutiny.

"Can I do something real quick?" she asked, her voice quiet. Sweat began to prickle my skin again, but I nodded, my guard going up. She reached up, gently taking hold of my glasses. I began to protest, but she looked at me, calming me with just the look in her green eyes. The heavy glasses slid off my face, and I looked down, feeling ashamed and sad.

In those days, the mid-eighties, they didn't have all the fancy schmancy plastics and glass like they do now. My glasses were thick, the lenses made out of incredibly heavy glass. Because of this, the bridge of my nose was constantly red and scabbed over from cuts that would form. Very embarrassing for me.

Alley folded the arms of the glasses, holding them in her lap as she looked at me.

"Look at me, Hunter," she nearly whispered, and so I did. Shyly glancing up at her, my eyes only managing to look into hers for about a nanosecond before I was taken over by nerves again. "Come on," looking back up at her, she smiled. "There ya go." Her voice was so soft, so gentle, and for just a moment, a small, precious moment, I felt as though I belonged, was liked, and not a freak. "You have the most beautiful eyes I've ever seen,"

Yeah, that's too much. I immediately looked away, focusing instead on my fingers that played with the cup in my hands.

"Alley, come on!" Someone called out.

"Coming," she said, then turned back to me. Through the blurry haze that was my vision, I saw her extending my glasses back to me. Taking them from her, I bowed my head, hair falling to create a curtain, and put them back on. When I looked up again, Alley was gone.

I only stayed at the party for about another hour before I walked home, tired and rejected. Other than Alley and her mom, not one person had spoken to me at that party.

To this day I think Toni had something to do with Alley inviting me to that first party.

As time went on, and we all got older, Alley and I would talk more, but always while in our own neighborhood. She would have me sit on the front stoop of her house, watching her do her cheerleading routines. I'd clap, yelling "Bravo!" always impressed with the height she could get on her jumps.

When she made the squad for our high school, she put on the shell and skirt, giving me a little fashion show, showing off the green and yellow outfit, our colors, green and gold Hornets.

We had fun during those summer nights, running, laughing, playing basketball with the guys across the street from Alley's house. One night, I was being a dork and was chasing her with my eyes closed. I know, stupid. I was fifteen, and totally smitten. Love makes you do crazy things.

Anyway, Alley's house and the house next to hers, the one on the corner of our block, had a six inch cement wall separating their yards. The cement had rough edges, blade sharp. So, as I'm chasing her, in the dark, with my eyes closed, she runs toward that wall, and I follow, listening for her giggles and screams as I'd get close, and BAM!

Down I went, the edge of that wall taking the top layer of skin from my left shin with it. I truly don't think I've ever bled so much in my entire life.

We laughed about it, I cried later about it because it stung so much. For years to come after that, Alley would laugh about it. She had this great laugh when she really got going. She couldn't talk anymore, her eyes squeezed shut, bursts of air trying to grasp words, turning only into a gasp of humor.

So many times did she laugh like that at my expense. I loved it, doing whatever I could to make her laugh. I also listened to her.

I spent the night over her house a few times, and we'd lay in her bed, my hands clasping the legs of the sweats or shorts I was sleeping in, so as not to accidentally touch her somehow. We talked about school, life, God, and what we hoped for in the future.

See, Alley had this amazingly sweet, innocent, nave way about her. Many people called her dingy, and I suppose it could be seen that way. But I never saw her like that. To me she was beautiful intelligent, and the sweetest, kindest, most compassionate person I'd ever known. In short, I took her seriously. She knew that, and I think that was a big reason she kept me around.

Though Alley was extremely popular, especially once we got into high school, but she was often called the school ditz. No one bothered to actually talk to her, find out what was in her mind. It made me sad.

I tired to defend her brain, and she defended me period.

I'll never forget the time I saw her push Nathan Watts against the lockers because he had been an asshole to me. He and I didn't have a very good history. In eighth grade, while sitting in the computer lab, I was playing 'Where In the World is Carmen San Diego' all by myself, minding my own business. He came up behind me, the giggle of his friend my only clue he was there, and pounded me on the back. Stunned and humiliated, I stood and pounded him right back. He was suspended from school for three days, and I got in-house suspension for a day.

My heart swelled even more when she did that for me.

The bus stop was at the end of our block, so we didn't have far to go. I would get up extra early every morning just so I could walk the couple houses to Alley's house, and knock on her door. Toni would answer, smiling as she invited me in.

I'd watch as Alley put the last remaining touches of makeup on her face, which I thought was sad. She was so beautiful, why did she use that junk? When she was done, she'd gather her things, her and Toni would argue about something, and I'd shuffle my feet by the door, feeling uncomfortable being there during another of their fights, then Alley and I would walk to the stop, waiting to catch our bus.

As soon as the big, yellow limo would arrive, I'd sit toward the front, as I always did, and she'd head on back to the back, where some of her friends already were.

I kind of got to sit with her by proxy.

Then Kyle came into the picture.

Kyle Hughes was older, had his own car, and had his eye on Alley. They started dating our sophomore year, Kyle already graduated by that point, and she'd get a ride with him.

My walks to the bus stop were solo ones after that, and my days spending time with Alley were basically over. It made me sad. It made me even more sad because Kyle treated her like shit.

In eleventh grade, it turned out that I had a class with Alley and a couple of her friends. It was an elective class, a home economics-type class, dealing with the family or something, and I got there early, as was my practice, on the first day, and saw that I had the pick of the litter of large, round tables that were scattered around the room.

I picked one that was toward the back, plopping my Jansport backpack on the table, and getting out my notebook, flipping open to the page I had been working on for my latest story, and began to write, waiting for the rest of the class to join me.

I was writing furiously, as quickly as my writing callused fingers would allow.

"Hey,"

I looked up, my left hand automatically moving up to cover what I'd written, for some reason ashamed of my small forest of notebooks and stacks of stories.

A smile found my lips. "Hi."

"Can I sit?" Green eyes, opened wide to all the wonder of the world, looked down at me. I nodded, quickly gathering my bag and shoving my notebook into it. The only person who could make me forget about my writing long enough to not take the normal care of gently closing the spiral notebook, easing it into the pack, between text books to keep it safe and flat, and then slide my beloved Cross pen into its treasured spot in the lower zipper of my bag.

Alley, having no idea about any of the artistic sacrifices I made for her, sat down.

Alley had been the inspiration and one of the main characters in the first novel I ever wrote. The book, titled "Dreams Come True" had been started in August of my twelfth year on the planet, and had been finished in February. The book had been about a girl, so misunderstood by everyone, including her own mother, and then she'd been saved by the friendship of a beautiful girl who saw things in the main character, Abby, that no one else saw. Including Abby.

Alley would never know that little secret. Remember a girl who had been in a class with me during that six month period when I wrote the novel, had asked to read it. Rebecca, was her name, and not a friend of mine. I'd been so horrified that she'd either make fun of me for it, or spread it around school.

Alas, for some reason, I'd allowed it. She sat in the desk next to mine, and in the middle of free period, and when I was writing on loose-leaf newsprint my grandmother would get for me from the local newspaper, I'd write a page, then hand it over to her. She read the entire three hundred fifteen page story, all written by hand.

I was terrified of what she would have to say the day she read the last page. She handed it to me, and me not looking at her, I put it with the impressive stack of fellow pages, slipping the rubber band around the bundle, holding my breath.

Finally she spoke. "You know when you're reading a book, and you can't wait to get to the next page, and to finish it?" she said, looking thoughtful for a moment. I nodded, still holding my breath. She smiled at me then. "That's how I felt when I read your book. It's like a real book."

I wanted to cry.

I also wanted to cry as Alley's friends joined us at the table. I waned to flee, but knew I'd hurt Alley's feelings. Besides, most of the tables were filled now, anyway. Trapped.

I reverted to what I often did when around Alley's friends- humor. I used humor with them, shining my wit and humorous insight to them. To my utter amazement, they fell for it! At many of the parties I'd been invited to at Alley's over the years, all of us girls would stay over night after the boys left. They came to expect good jokes from me, and for me to make them laugh. I tired to never fail in that task, and actually enjoyed it; even if it did make me feel like a circus monkey.

To my utter amazement and shock, I learned to like those couple of girls that were almost as beautiful as Alley, that sat with us. What you have to understand is, when a young lesbian, who doesn't realize she is a lesbian, is around beautiful girls, she turns into a fourteen year old boy.

I was no different. I had to keep a tight reign on myself and all my reactions, so as not to seem even more like a freak in their eyes. Eventually I got to know them as people, with many of the same problems as I had, and they got to know me. It was amazing, short lived, but amazing all the same.

For a short time they knew me by Hunter, and not by bookworm. It was great!

One afternoon during our junior year, I was out front, the hose in my hand. My mom had asked me to water the million and one flowers in the front yard, so I stood there, shorts and a t-shirt, the little gun twisted onto the end of the hose.

I sprayed up in the air, trying to see how many different rainbows I could make from the water in the sun. That is until my mom yelled at me from the front window, telling me I was wasting water. Back to the task at hand, I sighed, bored out of my mind.

Kyle drove by in his Mustang, Alley in the passenger seat. I glanced up, feeling jealousy throb in my gut, but pushed it down.

He parked the blue car in Alley's driveway, and a door was slammed, and hard.

"Get away from me," Alley yelled, pushing against Kyle's chest. He'd gotten out of the car, meeting her up by the forever open garage door of her house. He was saying something to her, but I couldn't understand, his deep voice low. "No!" She yelled, trying to walk away from him. I stood, watching, making sure she was okay.

"Hunter!" My head snapped back toward my own house, my mother standing in the doorway, hands on hips. "Wasting water," she pointed at the hose, which now hung limp in my hand. I rolled my eyes, pointing the nozzle toward the damn flowers again, focusing back on Alley and Kyle.

They were by his car, him leaning against it, back to me. Alley stood at the front of it, arms crossed pensively over her chest.

"I said, no, Kyle. But you pushed."

"Don't blame this one me!" He bellowed, pushing off from the car, walking over to her to stand menacingly tall next to her petit frame. Now they really had my attention. If he laid a hand on her, so help me god .

"Why are you fighting me on this?" Alley's voice was shaking now, and she sounded near tears. I wanted so badly to go over there and take her into my arms, shoving Kyle away, and make it all better for her.

"This is fucked up, Alley. There's no fuckin' way!" He slammed a fist down on the hood of his car, Alley flinching at the action.

"Yes, Kyle. Way."

"Fuck this shit, and fuck you!" He pointed a finger at her as he made his way back toward the driver's side. Slamming the door shut behind him, the engine roared to life. Alley ran over to the car, yelling something at him, though from the ruckus souped-up engine made, I couldn't hear anything.

"Leave, asshole. Leave, leave, leave," I muttered, as I moved to start watering the trees that lined one side of the yard. They were the little guys, newly planted, that were being supported by rope. Treelets, I called them.

With screeching tires, he fired down the driveway, nearly hitting Jennifer's little sister in his haste. He blasted down the street, turning the corner, disappearing.

Looking back over to Alley, I saw that she stood in the driveway, face buried in her hands. I released the trigger on my hose gun, the spray stopping, as I looked over at her. She looked up, eyes meeting mine across two lawns and driveways. My heart was pounding, stomach lurching, knowing that something bad had happened, and wanting to help.

After a moment, she turned and went inside. Throwing down the hose, I ran across those l two lawns and driveways, making it to her front door with nary a breath left in me.

I rang the doorbell, hearing footfalls not long after. The front door opened, and Alley and I looked at each other through the screen door for a moment, then she pushed it open, me taking a step back to avoid getting pushed off the porch. Once cleared, she took a step forward, falling into my arms, the tears running free.

I held her, eyes closed as I inhaled the scent of her shampoo. She felt so frail in my arms as the sobs shook her body.

"Shh, it's okay, Alley," I murmured, holding her tighter, guiltily loving the way she felt in my arms. "It's going to be okay."

Eventually I pulled us down, her nearly in my lap as I held her, sitting on that cold, cement porch.

I began to rub small circles over her back when she started to calm, the tears being sniffled instead of spilled on my shirt.

"I'm sorry," she said, noticing said tear stains.

"Don't worry about it. It's washable," I smiled, and so did she, gently pulling away from me, swiping at her nose with her hand. "Here," I offered her my shirttail, and she laughed, shaking her head. "I'm serious. In for a pound, in for a penny."

Smiling, she shrugged, and blew her nose on my shirt. I can't say it was incredibly pleasant, but I cared that much.

"Thank you," she sniffed, running her hands through her hair.

"Are you okay, Alley?" I asked, my voice soft, quiet. She sighed, looking out into the cool, late spring day.

"I'm not sure, to be honest."

"Do you need me to go beat him up for you? I'll do it, no problem," I stood, acting as though I were going to find him right this minute. She laughed, tugging on my hand for me to sit down again. I smiled at her, so happy to see a smile on that face instead of pain.

"How about you castrate him?" She rested her arms on her thighs, looking down at her hands, one palm facing the heavens, fingers from the other hand running over it. My brows drew, not fully understanding.

"Uh, sure. Can I borrow your pruning shears?"

She smiled at me, though her eyes were filling with tears again. "I'm pregnant, Hunter."

I looked at her, my breath caught, though I tried my damndest to not let it show. Before my mind's eye I saw him touching her, him seeing her naked, him getting his jollies from her. I doubt he ever even gave her an orgasm, probably just getting his rocks off and moving on.

Okay, Hunter, concentrate. More important things at hand than your fantasies of making love to Alley.

"What are you going to do?" I asked, feeling her reach out and take my hand. Her skin was so soft. She sighed.

"I'm not entirely sure. I know one thing- I can't afford to have a baby, and I don't want one." She looked down again, her hair falling to create a golden curtain around her.

The engine of a car was heard coming down the street, and we both looked up. Toni's cream colored sedan pulled into the driveway, and Alley quickly swiped at her tears.

"I need to go," she said, standing. I also stood, terrified for this girl. She had made a mistake, but how dearly would she pay for it?

"Hey, girls," Toni called out from her open window as she pulled into the garage. I waved with a smile, and hands tucked into the back pockets of her jeans, Alley followed her mother's car.

With a sigh, I headed home. I'll be here if you need me, Alley.

^^^

"Hunter?" my mother's voice called. I looked up from the game of solitaire I had spread out across my bed. I had heard the doorbell, but not in a million years did I think it would be for me.

Pushing off the bed, I ran a hand through my hair and opened my bedroom door, almost running full force into Alley. She looked up at me with red-rimmed eyes, making the green of her irises jump out at you with electrifying beauty and clarity.

"Hey," I said, uncertain. She'd never come to my house before. Hell, I don't think she'd ever even been in my house.

"Can I come in?" Her voice was so hoarse, it broke my heart. Nodding, I stepped aside, looking around my room as she entered it. It wasn't messy, luckily. My mom would have had my head if it were. In our house your own bedroom was not your sanctuary. It was part of the big picture that was the showpiece of the house.

I closed the door, giving myself something to do as I swallowed hard. I was so nervous having her in my bedroom. If only Alley had the first clue of just what kind of fantasies she starred in in this room.

She walked over to the built-in bookcase that partially lined the wall next to my bed. Running a finger along the neatly stocked spines of the books, then seeing the entire two shelves dedicated to all the notebooks I had been writing in for years.

The room was pretty muted, not much in it that represented who I was, save for the books. We weren't allowed to hang up any posters or pictures of any kind, as "They put holes in the walls."

After a moment of looking around, Alley walked over to the full-sized bed and sat, mindful of my forgotten card game, her hands tucked in her lap. Not sure what to do, and my heart still beating about a thousand per minute, I stood by the door, hands tucked into my pockets, looking anywhere but at her.

"Did I interrupt you, Hunter?" she finally asked, her voice soft. "I can go if you prefer," She began to stand, and I took action.

"No, please, sit." I walked further into the room, not wanting her to feel that she was unwanted. "Uh, are you okay?" I got a little closer, leaning against the dresser now, hands still in my pockets.

She smiled, though weakly, patting the bed next to her. "I won't bite, Hunter. I just need a friend right now. I know you won't judge me."

My internal cue. She needed me to be her hero, I'd gladly do it. Stepping over to the bed, I sat gingerly, legs together, my body huddled as much unto itself as I could manage without laying in the fetal position. I looked over at her, letting her know she had my full attention.

"My mom freaked out," she began, looking down at her fingers that played with one of the cards with the Joker on it. I said nothing, listening. "She wants me to have an abortion." She looked up at me. "Do you think I'm a bad person if I do that?" she almost whispered.

"It doesn't really matter what I think-"

"It does to me. Please, Hunter. Just answer the question." There was such pleading in her eyes, begging me to understand and be understanding. I sighed, deciding to be honest.

"It's not something that I could ever do, Alley, but I'm not you. If you feel that's what you need to do, that that's what's best right now, then I fully support you." I looked at her, taking in that angelic face that had haunted me for so long.

"Really?" she sounded so hopeful; it broke my heart. I nodded.

"Really."

She smiled at me, and I smiled shyly back. "Can I make a really odd request? And if you can't, I totally understand," she put her hand on my arm to emphasize her sincerity.

"Anything."

"Would you take me?"

"Take you," I wasn't following. Somehow I think my definition of 'take me' and her definition were two entirely different things.

"To have it done?" Her hold tightened slightly on my arm, the skin so warm.

"Of course. What abut Kyle?" I was trying to breath, the feel of her hand making my heart beat double time.

"Kyle's an ass. I don't want anything to do with him. And I don't want him having anything to do with this baby. Oh god," she buried her face in her hands, the tears coming quick and hard.

Freaking out for about a nanosecond, I decided to go with my instincts. My arm slipped around her shoulders, and she immediately fell against me. I held her, rocking her gently as she sobbed out her anguish. I couldn't imagine what she was going through, how her heart and seemingly endless compassion was being torn apart by such a decision.

In truth, no, I didn't agree with what she was wanting to do, but I would stand by her. Always.

^^^

We sat in my car in the parking lot of the doctor's office. The engine was turned off, engine ticking as it cooled. Alley sat in the passenger seat, staring out the window, her hands resting in her lap, her crucifix in her hands.

"Do you think I'll go to hell for this?" she asked, not looking at me. I knew she had a strong Catholic background, which made this even harder.

"Personally, I don't believe in hell." I said, looking over at her. She met my gaze.

"No?" I shook my head.

"I think we make our own hell. Right here on earth." My voice was soft, backing my beliefs.

"Then I certainly am in it." She sighed, closing the crucifix in her hand, the chain dangling from between her fingers. "Wait for me?" Her voice was almost a whisper, and I could hear the fear in it. Oh, I want to take it all away, Alley.

"I'll be here." Totally breaking my character, I reached out and gently brushed the backs of my fingers across her cheek, just barely touching the downy skin. To my surprise, she leaned into it, green eyes closing before opening a moment later. She opened the car door, and was gone.

I sighed, resting my head against the rest on the back of my seat. The day was clear, bright, even, but chilled. The prediction was for thunderstorms to start gathering by dinner time. That seemed a bit more appropriate for a day like today.

I had asked Alley if she wanted me to go in with her to the office, even just to wait in the waiting room. She said no, she had to do it on her own. Not questioning her questionable choice, I wait in my car.

My eyes closed, and behind the lids I saw images, wonderful images. Images of Alley looking at me, seeing me for all that I was, and all that I wanted to be for her. She looked at me with love and want. In my mind it was me who touched her, and not that bastard Kyle. He didn't deserve her. How could he let someone like her get away?

Just from the brief touch of her cheek, I put that tactile sensation into my imagination, imagining that all of her felt that way. I imagined her skin so soft against my hands, against my own body, my lips and tongue.

My body was on fire as my mind conjured pictures of me making love to her, showing her with my touch everything that I would never be able to say in words. How ironic that was- here I was, a writer, a wordsmith, someone who lives by words, and I can't find a single one to tell her.

I made my eyes open, tired of punishing myself for my odd, unorthodox wants and desires.

Bringing a hand up, I angrily wiped away the tear that threatened to fall. Why did I have to be so different? Why was I such a freak? What had I done in a past life to have to suffer through such pain and torment in this one? Feelings to never be returned, never to be understood, by Alley or me.

Sighing, I near jumped out of my skin as the passenger door was yanked open, and Alley threw herself into the seat next to me.

I looked at her, mouth opening to say something.

"Go. Please, just go," she sobbed, huddling in the seat. Not another word spoken, I started the car up and headed out of the parking lot.

I drove for a long time, silence my only companion as Alley was like stone. I looked over at her from time to time to make sure she was okay, but she said nothing, only looked out the window, eyes dead, seeming to be lost.

About an hour into our drive, the my passenger looked around, then at me.

"Where are we going?" she asked, glancing over at me before taking in her surroundings again.

"Garden of the Gods," I said quietly.

"In Colorado Springs?" she asked, brows drawn. I nodded. "Why?"

"Whenever I need to find peace, that's where I go." I took my exit and glanced over at her. "Is that okay?" She nodded, looking around as we entered the park.

"I've never been here."

"Then you're missing out." I smiled, driving along the weaving path, the car surrounded by the beautiful natural formations of the red and orange rock.

"Wow," Alley breathed, taking it all in. I just followed the path for a while, letting her take it all in. Knowing the best spot to watch the sun go down, which would be happening within the next hour or so, I drove us there.

Pulling off into the dirt, I pulled the break and opened my door.

"Come on." Stepping out of the car, I looked around, stretching my back a bit. I heard Alley also get out of the car.

"This is amazing," Alley joined me as I climbed onto a pile of the huge red rocks.

"Give me your hand," I reached down, watching as Alley reached up, putting her hand in mine. I pulled and she climbed, quickly up on the rock with me. She stood, turning in a small circle, taking in all the park that surrounded us. This time of year it was pretty empty, the tourists not starting to arrive until summer.

"You come up here a lot, then?" she asked, looking down at me, where I sat, knees draw up to my chest. I nodded.

"All the time."

"Do you come up here to write?" She sat down next to me, adjusting her body until she got comfortable. I smiled shy.

"Yeah. Sometimes. But mostly I just come here to think." I explained, brushing some strands of hair from my eyes.

"What do you think about?" She wrapped her arms around herself.

"Cold?" I asked, noticing the Goosebumps beginning to erupt on her arms. She nodded shyly. "Hang on," I jumped down from the boulder we'd been perched on, and ran to the car. Finding a blanket in the trunk, I hurried back over to her, tossing the blanket up on top, then climbed my way up. Unwrapping the blanket, I wrapped it around Alley's shoulders, tucking it in around her neck.

"You're so sweet. Thank you." She snuggled into it and glanced over at me again. "So, what do you think about?"

You. "Whatever's on my mind at the time. If I've had a fight with my mom, or sister, school. Whatever." I shrugged, glancing at her. She nodded, also bringing her knees up and resting her chin on them.

"I get in my car and drive around. You know, head way out in the country, like around the school," she turned her head so her cheek was resting on her knees and she was looking at me.

"What do you think about?" I asked, her eyes on me making me more than nervous and self-conscious.

"My future. What will I do once we graduate." She sighed, looking back out over the park. "It's kind of scary, to think we'll be so near graduation this time next year."

"Yeah, it is. I can't wait, though." We were both silent for a long while, the temperature falling with the sun. "How are you doing?" I asked, trying to make my voice as soft as possible. She nodded, looking down.

"Yeah. I'll survive." Her voice was also quiet, almost so much that it was hard to hear her.

"I know this is hard for you, Alley. I'm really sorry, and I want you to know that if you need anything, or if there's anything I can do, just let me know, okay?"

Alley nodded, still looking away, then turned to me. I could tell she was trying to keep her emotions in check. She smiled, then nudged me with her shoulder.

"There is one thing you can do," now she grinned, mischievously. "Keep me warm, will ya?"

I smiled and opened my arms. "Come here." She scooted over to me, and though I, too was getting really cold, my priority was keeping Alley warm. She snuggled up to me, and I shared my body heat with her, wrapping my arms around her blanketed shoulders.

"Better?" I asked, she nodded, snuggling in a little more. My heart was pounding like mad. I tried to keep my breathing under control, not wanting her to figure out just how much she affected me.

My thoughts were interrupted once again as I felt her petit body began to shake. This time it wasn't from the cold. She was crying.

I held her tighter, resting my chin on top of her head. To my surprise, she turned her body so she was sitting between my legs sideways, her face buried in my upper chest. The tears quickly saturated the thin material of my shirt, making me shiver. I tried my best to stop it.

I wrapped my arms more fully around her. She was so small, seeming so frail. My heart was breaking.

"Shh, Alley. It'll all be okay, I promise," I whispered against her hair.

"How do you know?" she cried, fingers gathering the material of my shirt in a fist.

I sighed for a moment, watching the sun really begin to fall, trying to think about how indeed I knew that.

"This is all fake, Alley. All of it. High school, all the bullshit that goes along with it. One day it will all be memories. Some good, some not so good. Kyle, hell, me, even tonight, will all be a distant memory for you. I promise you," I whispered, "You'll get through this and be so much stronger for it. Life is one big learning experience, Alley. You'll learn from this."

"God, I have learned such a lesson," she sniffled.

"See? And I've learned that Coke-bottle bottom glasses aren't the height of fashion." She laughed, smacking my arm lightly. I smiled, taking a moment to inhale the smell of her hair.

The sun fell further, painting the sky with its dying colors, a miracle of beauty.

"That's amazing," Alley whispered.

"Yeah," I looked down at her, the colorful rays caressing her face with orange and red. She looked up at me, just catching me as I looked away, cursing myself for getting caught.

After a few more minutes, the sun fully fallen for the night, Alley pulled away.

"It's getting late, and I'm so tired. I just want to sleep." The weariness in her voice made me sad. Nodding, I stood, taking the blanket she offered me so she could get down using both hands.

The drive home was quiet, Alley nodding off in the passenger seat, her head jostled as I headed back home. She came to as I passed the drive-in, passing two more streets before taking a left onto our own street. Bypassing my house, I drove to hers, pulling into the driveway.

Engine idling, Alley yawned then looked at me. "Thank you, Hunter. For everything."

"You're welcome. Anytime." I smiled, and she smiled back. Getting out of the car, she was about to close the door when she bent down, sticking her head in. I looked at her in confusion.

"I know of something else you can do for me." She grinned at me, eyes twinkling.

"What's that?"

"Dedicate your first book to me. You're going to be the star of County High, you know,"

"Oh, uh," I blushed, looking down. "I really don't know about that."

"I do. See you tomorrow." The door was closed, and I was left to start breathing again, watching her jog to the front door where, without looking back, she disappeared into the house.

^^^

Sitting at my computer, stroking my chin, I realized that my screensaver had come on, meaning I had been lost in my own head for at least fifteen minutes.

Nudging the mouse, the email from Carrie Johnston came back into view, the words Class Reunion in the subject line catching my attention.

With a sigh, I grabbed the mouse, aimed the pointer at REPLY, clicked.

I will be attending the reunion. Please send me more information as for when, where, etc. Hunter Cane.

There were so many years and an ocean under that bridge, I figured it was high time to let the past go.

That night at the Garden of the Gods had been our one magical night. We never spent any time alone after that. I wasn't sure if it was because we were both so busy, trying to get through the end of our high school careers, or if perhaps Alley had seen or sensed something in me that night that had made her nervous or uncomfortable.

I suspected the latter, but hoped for the former.

It didn't matter now. I had not seen nor heard from or about Alley since graduation. I had gone on my merry way, leaving Colorado for good, and moving at first to Portland, Oregon. I got a job and attended classes, meanwhile working on my true love- writing.

I managed to find a cheap computer at a pawn shop and was in heaven as I could type 80 words per minute, pushing out entire novels it seemed, where before with pen and paper, it felt like a chapter.

I went through dry spells of writing, then would go through crazed possessed moments where I'd write two chapters in a single night, my fingers flying across the keyboard like they were being chased by Satan, himself.

It paid off. One of my professors saw something in me, and encouraged me to send my work out. It started slow- short stories, a couple of published essays. And then pay dirt.

My first ever typed manuscript was accepted by Putnam. After my advance, I dropped out of school, cut down on my hours at work, and began to write my soul.

By this time I had figured things out about myself, and had dabbled in the world of women.

Somehow, after finding the wondrous world of contacts, getting my hair out of my face, and figuring out a bit about confidence, or feigned confidence, anyway, women began to come to me.

I was stunned, but certainly didn't turn down the attention. As the money began to roll in from my quarterly royalties checks, I decided to quit my job, buy a laptop and see the world.

Which was where I was at now- my bungalow in the Irish hillside. For me there was nothing more beautiful than to walk out in the early, fog-ridden morning, seeing my emerald surroundings and breathing in the history. When I was in college, which I'm considering going back to, I was studying history. I had hoped of one day earning my doctorate in anthropology, and studying the cultures of the world, and their history.

Not an impossible dream.

I walked out into the morning aforementioned, cup of coffee in hand. Stunning, that was all I could think of. In this place words left me.

Before coming outside, I had called my agent. She had been worried about me being out and about in public like that, but I assured here that most people had not a clue who I was, and I seriously doubted any single one of my former classmates knew I was a best selling author. I always felt like such a schmuck to say that, but at the same time, I'd earned that title.

All I had to do was wait for Carrie to send me the information so I could make travel arrangements. I didn't look forward to the eight hour flight back to New York, then another four hours to reach DIA in Denver. Then, after that, another two hour drive to Pueblo.

I sighed. No wonder I stayed away.

^^^

Shutting my laptop, I tucked it into its bag then slid it underneath the seat in front of me.

The plane pulled into the gate, and the woman, Nora, sitting next to me smiled.

"Thanks again for signing this, Hunter. My husband is going to be so happy."

I smiled back at her. "You're very welcome. Enjoy."

Despite what I had said to my agent, I knew I was going to get attacked. I had been on Oprah three weeks ago for my latest book, and people had relatively long memories where television was concerned.

I pulled the bill of my cap a bit lower and headed toward the baggage claim.

Just as I knew it would, the drive toward home sucked. I hadn't told my family I was going to be in town, figuring I'd do that toward the end of my stay. I loved them, and didn't see them near as often as I should, but they drove me nuts. Especially my mother. I'm sure I'd try and spend some time with my sister.

The Colorado landscape passed by my rental car as I headed south, hitting Castlerock, into Colorado Springs, and on into Pueblo. Two hours and two and a half CDs later, I pulled into the parking lot of the Marriott in historic, downtown.

I was stunned how much the town had changed since I'd spent any amount of time here, a decade ago. My family had been telling me things had been springing up like made, especially on the north side of town, and along HWY 50. I'd have to check that out tomorrow.

For today I just wanted to relax, set up my laptop and finish my newest chapter.

^^^

Looking at myself in the mirror, I turned this way and that, feeling like a complete dork. Why should I care what any of those people thought of me? They didn't like you once, why would they like you again?

Then I realized I was playing a child's game. It didn't matter anymore what they thought. I knew now who I was, something I didn't have the slightest inkling of then. After talking to my agent again before I'd left Ireland, she had tried to talk me into having a box full of my last book sent here, and for me to set up a table. Though I had been utterly amused by the idea, yeah no.

Wearing a simple blue open-collar button down tucked into black slacks, topped off by black boots and a silver chain at my exposed throat, I was ready. Arguing for an hour on whether I should wear my hair up or down, down finally won, and I ran a hand through it one last time, making sure every long strand was where it was supposed to be.

I had to admit I looked good, and best of all, I knew I looked good. Alright, so I cared what they thought. That admitted to, I planned to knock them on their asses. I was no longer the shy, timid gawky girl of my youth. I was a successful, intelligent woman who knew where her place was in this world. They could go to hell.

The drive to Giadone's Restaurant was long, as it was way out in the county, not terribly far from our old high school, which I took the extra time to drive by. Their had been an addition made to the entryway, but other than that, it was the same one story, brick building, the stadium next to it, empty and silent on a June night.

I had many memories of that stadium. I'd go during the games, watching the Hornet football team getting creamed by the South Colts or East Eagles or Central Bulldogs, or any other out of town school.

I didn't care about football. I went to watch the cheerleaders. Not just any cheerleader, mind you- I went to watch Alley. She was amazing, a wonderful athlete, and her inner spunk and magnetism would work the crowd into a frenzy of excitement, rooting their boys on that maybe this time, they'd win.

The magic rarely worked for our boys, but it did a number on me.

The restaurant's parking lot was full of cars, ant to my amusement, lots of mini vans.

Locking my car door, I took a deep breath, irritated at myself for being nervous, and headed inside.

A cacophony of voices and clinking glasses could be heard as I entered the small, intimate Italian restaurant. Servers wearing black pants, white dress shirts and black bowties and cummerbunds, swarming around, bringing drinks, setting up tables and chatting amongst themselves, fingers pointing, directions given and tasks carried out.

People in all sorts of dress stood around in small and large groups, one on one, and some standing off by themselves.

Not sure where to go, I headed to the bar, ordering a white wine. Stemmed goblet in hand, I turned to face the crowd. My eyes swam over the faces, trying to put names to them, or at least some sort of association.

Off to my left I heard a small gasp. Turning, I met wide, hazel eyes. I smiled, recognizing one of my old theater friends.

"Hunter?" she whispered, hand to her mouth. Still the drama queen, I take it.

"Hi, Gwen. How are you?" I walked over to her, amused that she looked the exact same, minus the black clothing and blood red lipstick.

"Great, I'm doing great. But not as good as you! My god," She reached out as though she were going to touch me, then stopped herself, hand falling to her side again. "Jesus, you got hot!" Her eyes took all of me in, and I began to squirm a bit under the intense scrutiny.

"Thank you." I think.

"And your books!" she hissed, eyes huge again from excitement. "I hope you don't mind, but I brought them all. I have them in my car, on the off chance you'd come. Will you sign them?" I smiled, amused and flattered.

"Of course."

"I always knew you'd make something of yourself and leave this piss poor town," she sipped her own drink. "I bet you live in some fabulous mansion somewhere, like New York or L.A. or something."

"Well," I looked down into my wine, feeling a bit shy talking about this. Part of me felt guilty for leaving one of my only friends here. Granted, I knew she could damn well get out herself, if she hadn't already, but I still felt guilty. I had been to places that I'm sure she could only dream about. "I've been to those places, yes. What about you?" Anxious to get the focus off me, I smiled at her.

"I live in Pueblo West now. You ought to see what that's turned into. Crazy stuff."

When I'd been here before, the outlying area, just west of Pueblo proper, had a few houses scattered, but in ten years it had apparently turned into its very own little city.

Gwen and I chatted for a bit, her catching me up on everything that had happened since I'd been gone, and on everyone- who'd gotten married, who'd gotten pregnant, and who had disappeared off the face of the planet. Like me. I listened, but truthfully, didn't care all that much what these people had been up to. But one thing caught my ear.

"What?" I looked at her, wine glass half-way to my lips.

"What?" brows were drawn as she showed her confusion of her rhythm being interrupted.

"What did you say? Just now?"

"About Alley Simon?" I nodded. "Oh, she and her husband divorced."

"Who did she marry?" I tried to sound nonchalant, but wasn't quite sure how well I was doing. I wasn't an actress anymore.

"I'm not sure. Some guy she met in school. Did you know she went to college at Stanford?" Gwen's brows raised to emphasize the wonder of this news. In Pueblo, Colorado it was quite the event when someone broke free and went to college out of state, let alone at a school like Stanford.

"Is she still in California?" I sipped my wine, my eyes on my old friend so they wouldn't wonder.

She shrugged. "I'm not sure. The rumor mill ended with their divorce."

"When did that happen?"

"Uh," she narrowed her eyes in thought. "I'm thinking about a year ago."

"Interesting," I looked around the room and was amazed that all the old cliques began to form again. People were starting to find tables to sit at, and I could have easily been back in the commons area of County High again. We were all just a little older, and dressed a little better.

As the night went on, very few people talked to me, though it was a whole different ball of wax from my leperacy in high school. The word was flowing through the room like a current, who I was and what I had done.

Oh, revenge is sweet.

I was stared at, ogled at, and to my glee, glared at. I know it was childish and stupid to take pleasure from their discomfort, but after suffering from their antics for the first eighteen years of my life, I felt it was my right and their due. Those kinds of scars don't go away. Sure, they fade and mean less and less, but they never truly heal, leaving you to forever second guess yourself and other's reactions to you.

I chatted with some of my old buddies, and a few folks I hardly recognized, signed some autographs and answered a few questions, but the night ended in disappointment for me.

She didn't come.

I had tried to convince myself that this was a mission of vengeance, and in part that was true, but the biggest reason for my return was for Alley. I wanted to see her again. This was not admitted to myself until that moment when I unlocked my hotel room door, kicking my boots off and plopping down on the bed.

She had been my first love, I knew that now. The first is the hardest to let go of, especially when it was unrequited, and left without closure.

The day we graduated, she had found me in the crowd of fellow graduates and their family members, and had given me a hug.

"Congratulations, Hunter," she'd said, her hands still on my shoulders after the hug.

"You, too." I smiled down at her, looking into her glorious eyes, so filled with vibrant happiness.

"We did it, huh?"

I nodded. "Yeah. Finally."

"No kidding," she rolled her eyes in exasperation and I chuckled.

"Alley! Come on!" Melissa Ryan had yelled out. Alley turned to her, nodding that she'd heard her, then turned back to me.

"I have to go. Good luck to you," Slowly her hands left me, and she backed up a couple steps, her eyes not leaving mine. I could only look at her, knowing that would probably be the last time I ever saw her, standing there in her yellow robe, mortar board in her hand, green and gold tassel hanging off with a gold '95 clinging to it.

Raising my hand, I silently said goodbye. She smiled at the gesture, then turned and disappeared into the crowd.

Sighing, I decided that a hot bath was just what the doctor ordered. As I ran the water, steam filling the small space, I thought about what Gwen had told me. Divorced, yes, but that meant she had been married. This conjured up images of Kyle I tried to imagine what Alley looked like, happy and in love. I saw her being held by some good-looking man; I saw him kissing her, touching her, making love to her. Her body came back to me. Seeing her in swim class in ninth grade. She had joined the swim team after that, and I'd go see the games, again, huddled against the wall in the stands, not wanting to be seen by anyone.

I could still see Alley up on her platform, preparing to dive, her body so amazingly beautiful- compact, muscular, perfect.

What did she look like now? It didn't matter. It had always been her eyes that had drawn me in. She could now be four hundred pounds, dirty and unkempt. She'd still have those same eyes, always so filled with life, curiosity and Innocence.

Would that be the same? Or had life taken that Innocence away in the decade since high school? If that light ever died, all that was magnetic about Alley would die with it. The magic sparkle that had made me fall in love with her.

^^^

The family potluck wasn't set to start until two, at Mineral Palace Park, so I decided to take a drive down memory lane, literally.

My parents had moved into town some years back, the old house on 20 Lane sold to someone else who had made it their home, filled with their memories. Mine were still there, too, though.

The drive-in's sign boasted of the two movies that would be playing that night, making me smile. I wondered what the new owners of the old house thought about the drive-in. Did they open their windows during the summer nights, too, to hear the movies? Laying there in their bed, trying to conjure up the pictures that went along with the words and music?

Probably.

The old street looked basically the same. New fences were put up, old ones gone. New coats of paint with some radical color changes, and a new garage built next to the house that had been my neighbors for six years.

The old house looked good. All the flowers and trees my mom had planted were still there, taken care of, lovingly watered and weeded. Just how mom would want it to be. She'll be happy when I tell her.

Parking at the curb, my eyes flicked two houses down. Astonished, Toni's Oldsmobile was parked in the driveway. The same car, though it had seen better days.

Could she still live there?

Movement caught my eye, and a Ford pick turned off of Iris, and onto our street, pulling in next to the Olds. The engine was cut off, and the passenger door opened.

My heart stopped, breath catching in my throat.

Short blonde hair, a nervous hand running through it. Tanned legs coming out of cutoffs, ending in sandals. A yellow t-shirt with some unknown saying on the front.

I could hear the muffled laughter tickling the air as she laughed at something Collin had said. The front door opened, and Toni, a great deal more gray now, hurried down the walk to the driveway, where she caught her daughter up in her arms, hugging her tightly.

Alley's back was to me, so I had yet to see her face. The hug finished, Toni put an arm around the backs of both her children, and the three made their way inside.

From Toni's reaction I'd say Alley doesn't live in Pueblo anymore. I'd wonder if she lived in Colorado at all. It seemed as though they hadn't seen each other for a bit.

Feeling the captive breath escape my pained lungs, I blinked several times, trying to reconcile the woman I'd just seen with the girl I'd been in love with.

The house remained silent, no movement outside, so I decided it was time for me to move on.

That is until the front door opened again, just as I was getting the car started. Collin stepped out, headed toward his truck. He looked up, noticing my car. He squinted, shielding his eyes as he looked at me. I was about ready to pull away from the curb when the front door opened again, and Alley came out. Brother and sister exchanged unheard words, Collin nodding toward me in the car. Alley looked over at me.

My heart skipped a beat as her gaze met mine, though I could see nothing of her expression from two houses away.

To my horror, she jogged down the driveway, Collin grabbing a large bag from the back of his truck and heading inside.

My gaze turned back to my old neighbor, who was almost to my car. Realizing it was a losing battle, I pushed the button on the control panel built into the door. The window lowered with a buzz, and she was there, standing right there.

"Oh my god, Hunter?" she asked, bending down, her face and shoulders filling my window. I was struck dumb for just a moment. She was amazing. She looked so young and healthy. Gone was the makeup, replaced by her own, natural glow. It was strange to see her hair so short though. I used to fantasize about running my fingers through the long strands.

"How are you, Alley?"

"I'm great. My god, get out here," she took a step back, pulling the car door open as she did. Knowing I had no choice, I stepped out, and found myself holding a very excited little blonde in my arms.

After a moment, she pulled away and looked me over. Finding my eyes again, she shook her head.

"I can't believe how you've changed. Wow,"

I looked down, blushing, then feeling like a total idiot for doing so. "You look great," I finally said, looking shyly at her.

"thanks." Her gratitude was genuine, eyes twinkling in the way I remembered so well. "You're stunning. Absolutely beautiful. Personally I think you were holding out on all of us all those years," she grinned, punching me playfully in the arm. Blushing yet again, I shuffled my feet in an 'aww, garsh' sort of way. "Come on." Grabbing my hand, she drug me down the street, toward her house. "I know mom would love to see you."

I walked beside her, trying to soak in her presence without letting her know I was soaking in her presence. I was stunned by the way she turned me right back into the shy, unsure teenager I had been. Any and all confidence I had went right out the window the moment I laid eyes on her again.

Alley seemed to have changed, too. She was no long the bubbly, vivacious teen she had been, makeup, teased hair and prom queen ways. No. She was a woman, now. She seemed to have an inner calm that drew me to it like a moth to the proverbial zapper.

As we neared the Simon house, years melted away from me, memories coming back fresh and real. It wasn't hard to imagine Alley and I walking back from the convenience store down by the drive-in, cokes in our hand and spare change in our pockets.

"Oh lord, look at you!" Toni exclaimed, hurrying over to me, a bear hug waiting. I smiled, loving the maternal warmth that had always exuded from her. We separated, and I looked down at her.

"You look great, Mrs. Simon. Lost some weight, too."

"Damn straight I did. Had me one of them tummy tuck things. Lost over a hundred and twenty pounds already." She grinned proudly, and I smiled my joy for her. "Back for the reunion, or just back?"

"For the reunion." I said, probably a little more quickly than I should have.

"I see. How's your mom? I haven't talked much to her since your folks moved into town." She tugged me along, almost pushing me to sit on the couch, she sitting on one side of me, Alley on the other.

"She's doing good. She's managed to make their new yard a jungle, too. Beautiful, though."

"Good deal. And Ben?"

"My step-dad's doing well. He's still working his butt off at the mill."

"Where are you living now?" Toni asked, her hand laying upon my knee. I could feel the heat from Alley's body behind me, which was ridiculous. She was sitting a respectable distance away, but I swear her nearness singed me.

"Uh, well," again that bit of modesty crept up on me. "Lately I've been staying at my place near Dublin."

"Ireland!" Toni almost shouted. I grinned, nodding. She whistled through her teeth. "Our girl made it big, honey," she said, looking over her shoulder at her daughter.

"I always knew she would." Alley said quietly, a soft smile on her face. She stood and I found myself yanked once again "We're going to go for a walk, mom."

"Oh, uh, okay. See you later, Mrs. Simon," I called out over my shoulder as a very determined little blonde pulled me toward the door, and finally out into the hot day.

We walked in silence down our street, turning left onto Iris and headed down to Zino. As we walked I could feel Alley's eyes on me from time to time.

"I love all your books," she finally said, eyes facing forward. I glanced at her.

"Really?"

"Oh, yeah. You are so talented, Hunter. I just," she sighed, bearing her teeth as she thought, "I'm so damn proud of you." She blurted. I actually wasn't blushing, for probably the first time in my life around her.

"Thank you. That means a lot."

"I knew you would do it. I just knew it. I'm going to tell you something that'll make you laugh,"

I glanced over at her. "Try me."

"Well," she chuckled, "last year when you were on the Late Show, my husband, well ex-husband, and I were watching, and when you came on, I jumped up and down, clapping my hands and yelling at the TV," she was full out laughing now. "I was so excited for you. And then I cried," she rushed.

"What? Why?" I looked at her with narrowed brows.

"Because I was so happy for you, so proud of you. You did what you had always set out to do, and I was so inspired by that." She paused for a moment. I stayed quiet as I sensed she had more to say. The thought seemed to die on the tip of her tongue, so I changed the subject.

"So why weren't you there last night?" We turned left onto Zino, which shocked me. As a kid only the left side of the street had any houses on it, the other side an open field. Now it was filled with nice, modest houses, yards planted and green.

She chuckled. "Trust me, I wanted to be there. I had to face the board to argue my dissertation yesterday afternoon."

"You're getting your doctorate?" I asked, very curious. I may just have to pick her brain to see how bad it really is.

"Yes, the school ditz has brains," she said, her eyes were teasing, but there was a hint of bitterness in her voice.

"I know," I said, glancing at her. "I never doubted you for a second."

"I know." She smiled. "That was just one of the things I liked about you."

"There were more than one?" I teased back. She nudged me with her shoulder.

"And, I hope so, as far as getting m doctorate goes." She smiled nervously.

"When will you find out?"

"About three weeks. I have to tell you, that was the most terrifying thing I've ever done."

"I can imagine. What will your PhD be in?"

"Biochemistry."

"No kidding? The head cheerleader was a science nerd?" I eyed her, wrinkling my nose. She burst out laughing, coaxing a grin from me.

"What can I say? I was closeted."

I wish.

We walked all the way down Zino, turning around at the cul de sac, then headed back the way we'd come.

"Are you still in California?" I asked after awhile. She looked at me, surprised.

"How did you know I was there?"

"My old theater buddy Gwen told me last night. She said you went to Stanford." I explained, gently pushing her off the sidewalk so she wouldn't step in the home of fire ants.

"Thanks. Yeah, went to Stanford. That's where I met Dan, my ex."

"She told me about your divorce. I'm sorry."

Alley chuckled. "What else did she tell you?"

"That's it, I promise. I mean, come on- it's not like you were there for me to pick your brains."

"No, I suppose not." She sighed, staring up at the blue sky, clear and beautiful. "And it's okay. The divorce was a good thing. Something I really needed to do."

I nodded, not saying anything. I figured she'd tell me what she wanted me to know, and I wouldn't push for anything more. An easy silence fell between us again as we continued on down the street, the sun beating at our backs, both of us with our hands shoved into our pockets.

"So why Ireland?" her voice was soft as she glanced up at me. I shrugged.

"Why not?" Smiling, I looked over at her, then back to the ground. "I've always wanted to go there, and wanted something new, to see how others lived. It's beautiful there," it came out in a reverent whisper.

"I bet. I've always wanted to go there." She sounded so wistful.

"Maybe you can come visit sometime, Dr. Simon." My heart melted at the look of absolute pride that lit up her entire face, hell, her entire being.

"So why were you sitting in your car staring at my house?" she grinned. Blushing, again, I smiled.

"I had actually come around just to see the old neighborhood, my old house. As I was about to leave, you and Collin showed up. That's when you caught me staring."

"Some things never change," Alley said, almost as if to herself. I looked over at her, mortified. I saw the small smile curling her lip, and I wanted to die right then and there. Maybe I'd find one of those ant hills and ask if I could move in. I could carry leaves and blades of grass around for a living.

"Are you going to the picnic today?" Alley asked, pulling me out of my thoughts, and the gutter.

"Yeah. You?'

"Yep." She blew out. "God it is so nice to not have to worry about school. I've been going for the past twenty-three of my twenty-eight years. I think I've earned a break."

"I would have gone mad," I muttered.

"Yeah, well I almost did. Never thought I'd be done, yet here I am." She grinned up at me, looking for all the world like a little kid. I was charmed all over again. "How long are you in town?" she asked as we rounded the corner to our street.

"I'm not sure. I got an open ticket just in case I needed to flee in the middle of the night after committing matricide."

"Oh, nice." Alley laughed, nudging me with her shoulder again. I smiled.

"You?"

"I'm staying until next Saturday. I need a break from Cali."

"And this seemed the opportune palace to vacation?" I asked, brow raised.

"As good as any, I suppose. It's away from home, and that's all I care about."

"Mm. True."

Perhaps I could stay a bit longer.

"Well," Alley suddenly said as we got to her mom's house. "I'll see you in a bit. I need to get the grime from flying off me," she wrinkled her nose and I chuckled.

"Okay. See you there." With one last wave, she trotted into the house.

^^^

I still wasn't thrilled about going to the picnic, and being back in town at all, but knowing that Alley would be there made it a much easier pill to swallow. Truth be told, I couldn't wait to see her again.

This was all surprising me greatly, and not in a good way. I'm not a huge fan of surprises. Especially backfire surprises. Alley had been the primary reason for me going to the stupid reunion, and much of that was because I wanted to see her again, see that the girl in my childhood that I'd built up to be some supernatural goddess of wander was just an immature fantasy that never saw fruition, and therefore never went away.

Not so much.

Though I'd only spent maybe an hour and a half with her walking, I was intrigued all over again. I could still see the girl I knew in there, but the woman she had become had me fascinated.

Damn it.

Cars lined the parking lot, kids running around chasing each other as their parents set up table, which were quickly becoming piled with various dishes of food.

Being the amazing cook I am, I brought a couple bags of Lays' potato chips and a cooler of pop. Tugging my sunglasses on, I stepped out of the rental, plastic grocery sack stacked on top of the cooler, I walked across the lush, green lawn, setting my offerings on and near the table.

"Hunter Cane?"

I turned to see a young guy dressed in a polo shirt and khaki pants standing next to me, sunglasses pulled up to rest on top of her his.

"Yes?"

"Hi," he smiled, dark eyes shining. "I'm Jacob Valdez from the Chieftain. I was wondering if you'd be willing to chat with me for a few moments, you know, tell your hometown newspaper what you've been up to, that sort of thing." He smiling winningly, and I fought the urge to roll my eyes. Instead, I put on my professional face, the face of Hunter Cane the author.

"Nice to meet you, Mr. Valdez. Sure." Crossing my arms over my chest, I smiled, watching as he tried to juggle his writing pad and camera bag, digging a pen out of said bag.

"Great, thank you." Finally, after much nervous unpreparedness, Jacob got us settled under a tree, and he began his interview. A crowd was beginning to form, far more of my old classmates at the picnic than were at the mixer the night before.

I put myself on autopilot, answering all the old, familiar questions with a smile and grace, all the while I scanned the crowd, seeing many familiar faces, but only one really caught my attention.

Standing behind everyone else, off by herself, Alley leaned against a tree. Her arms were crossed over her chest, sunglasses on, and a small smile curling up her lips.

"I'm sorry, what was that?" I turned my full attention back to Jacob.

"What is it like for you to be back here in Pueblo?" He repeated, pen poised over his notepad.

"It's been nice. I can't believe how much the city has changed," I laughed softly, as did he with a nod. "And I understand you guys got a Tinsel Town here?" Again he nodded. "Now why couldn't you have done that fifteen years ago?"

He laughed again, though far more than was necessary. I was amused. So many people were so nervous around me, and I couldn't quite understand why. I was the same geek I had been my whole life. Just a bit older and a snappier dresser.

The interview was over, and I suffered through a barrage of pictures by Jacob Valdez, and to my utter astonishment, I realized that some of my classmates were taking pictures, too! Creepy.

The newsman left the park, and I stood, taking a shaky breath. I had dealt with the public before, and crowds of fans while on a signing tour around the United States and Europe. I had been fine, controlled and poised. For some reason the undue attention of my classmates made me extremely nervous. Their attention was making me sweat under my arms, and I could have greased a bike chain with my palms.

"Come on. Let's eat," some merciful soul called out, and a wave of murmuring began to flow through the dispersing crowd.

"Get that a lot, do you?" I turned to see Alley smirking at me. I smiled, feeling shy, again, and shook my head.

"Not especially. The good thing a bout being in the writing business is that most people don't pay much attention to the 'about the author' page, or their picture. Certainly they don't memorize the author photos."

Alley chuckled, a thumb caught in her belt loop, her other hand behind her back. She brought it out, and I shook my head as I laughed, seeing my first novel in her hand.

"Sign it?" she said sheepishly. She opened the book, turning it to the dedications page. I glanced at it, seeing

For Alley: a promise is a promise.

I looked up at her to find she was looking at me through blonde bangs. I shrugged, suddenly feeling very stupid.

"Well I did promise," I tried to defend myself.

"I wondered if that was me," she said softly. "I mean, I know what I said that night, but it was a long time ago, and I wasn't sure-"

"Yes." I looked into her eyes. "That's you," I tapped the dedication with my finger. Her face lit up, and my heart melted. Needing to do something to diffuse the situation, I took the book from her, looking at it, turning it this way and that. "Jeez. Did you use this thing as a doorstop?" I raise a brow. To my utter shock and further meltdown, Alley blushed.

"I've read it six times," she said, her voice very quiet and gentle. Finally looking up at me, she smiled. "It's a wonderful story, Hunter. I," she looked down, reaching out to gently caress the cover of the novel that I held in my hand. "Truly wonderful. You are amazingly talented."

I just looked at her, stunned, left speechless.

"The way you wove this amazing story of Anne, what the Irish went through during the famine," Alley's eyes lit up as her excitement grew. "And then how you wove it all with actual historic events! It was wonderful." She stopped to take a breath. "And what got me, too, was the amazing relationship between Anne and Connie. This beautiful friendship that lasted a lifetime." She smiled and shook her head. "Such devotion. Just beautiful."

"Wow," I stammered. "I'm stunned."

"So was I. I knew your mind and figured you were good, but I had no idea you were that good."

"Thank you, Alley. That means a lot to me," I said quietly, looking down before shyly looking back at her.

"Why Ireland? And the Gaelic, how did you do that? Do you know how to speak Gaelic?" She crossed her arms over her chest, shifting her weight to a hip.

"Well, I've always had a fascination with the country and the Celtic culture. I went over there to do some research, and met a, well," my feet shuffled, "a friend. She helped with the Gaelic."

"Oh," Alley blinked, then a small grin curled up one corner of her mouth. "Why didn't you bring you friend with you?"

I smirked. "We're not friends anymore."

"Ah,"

"Alley?"

We both turned to see three women, that I recognized as Alley's old friends, hurrying over. Inwardly I groaned.

"Hey, guys!" the blonde grinned, turning to them. The three nearly knocked her down with their exuberance.

Deciding to duck away, I took the book and headed toward a picnic table. Sitting down, I sighed, glancing up toward Alley, who had almost disappeared from the group that had surrounded her. I knew it was selfish, but I was irritated. I wanted her whole attention, even though she had started to make me very nervous with her questions. I had no reason to lie, but there was that part of me that was terrified Alley would freak out. I still had the feelings within me of that night in the Garden of the Gods. I think I had freaked her out that night. I didn't want to have that feeling again, that I had pushed her away.

I wanted so badly to be close to her. I didn't care how, just some way. As I looked over at her, even though I couldn't see her, I couldn't shake the feeling that Alley was supposed to play some sort of role in my life, something big.

But then I reasoned that I was probably just a hopeless fool, lost in a memory.

^^^

Leaving the signed book resting on the picnic table, I got up and headed toward the food. As I dished myself a plate of potato salad, baked beans, grilled hot dog and a Coke, I looked around at the adults whom I used to know as teenagers. Some hadn't changed in the least, but some had changed radically. They'd gotten bigger or smaller; certain body parts had gotten smaller or much bigger.

What was the most surreal, however, was watching them with their kids. It was difficult for me to see these people as responsible adults, now. As they chased around screaming kids, or coddled them, I still saw the cocky seventeen year old they had once been.

I could have just sat against a tree and watched it for hours. But hours I didn't have.

As I walked around, my old friends chatted with me, but the rest just stared after me. I'm sure many of them didn't remember me, and wondered why I was at their reunion. Those who I know knew who I were, still stared. It was painful all over again. I realized in that moment that no matter what I did, who I was or what I became, I'd always be an outsider to them. They'd either see me as the freak they perceived me to be in school, or I'd be untouchable by fame. I'd never have their acceptance.

This was an extremely bitter pill to try and swallow, and I was tired of trying. I didn't have anything to prove to them anymore, and I was angry at myself for feeling that I could.

Tossing my half-eaten lunch into a trash bin, I headed toward my car, thumb unconsciously rubbing against the little rubber Hertz key chain.

The late day sun glinted off the key just before I stuck it in the lock.

"Hunter! Wait,"

Turning, I saw Alley running across the grass, only slowing once she got to the parking lot. Somewhat out of breath, she hurried over to me. I looked at her, hand on the partially open door of the car.

"Where are you going?" she asked, resting her hand on the roof of the car.

"Oh, uh," I felt as though I'd been busted somehow, though busted doing what I wasn't sure. I looked down, playing with the keys in my hand. "I've had as much social time as I can take for one day," I smiled shyly.

"Why? Are you okay?" she looked concerned as she placed a gentle hand on my arm.

"Yeah, I'm fine." I smiled. "Really. You know me, anti-social to the end."

"Yeah, guess so. Taking off, huh?"

"Yeah."

"Okay," she said quietly, then smiled, tilting her head slightly to the side. "See you tonight at the dance?" I sighed, then shrugged.

"Probably."

"I think that's the best I'm going to get out of you. If you wouldn't even go to the school dances, somehow I doubt we'll get you this one." She smiled warmly.

"Hey now, I went to prom. Twice," I held up two fingers. She chuckled, then took a step back.

"Bye, Hunter."

"Bye, Alley."

^^^

My fingers flew across the keyboard of the laptop, words trailing behind, my soul displayed for all to see. It always amazed me that I had any heart left after I finished with a story. I wondered if my readers knew just how much of me they got with each word.

Glancing up, I saw my bags neatly packed and sitting near the door. I had decided to leave, but had a few ideas to get out first.

So involved was I in those ideas that I almost missed the knocking on the hotel room door. Glancing up, I looked around the room, stupidly looking around for the source of noise that my brain picked up. There it was again. Growling in frustration, I set my laptop aside and got off the bed.

Stretching my aching back, I opened the door, expecting another reporter or fan who had seen me in the hotel.

It took will power for my mouth to hang open, tongue lulling to the side. Unfortunately I didn't have enough will power in reserves to prevent my eyes from starting at the green eyes and slowly work their way down a smooth neck, creamy, sculpted shoulders, beautifully displayed by the dress' halter-top design, on down the somewhat low v-neckline, highlighting the fullness of beautiful breasts. My eyes lingered there for a moment before continuing to a slim waist, caressed by the matter jersey material, which finally ended just above the knee.

"Guess I don't need to ask if you like the dress," asked a soft, low voice.

Feeling like an ass, I turned, heading back into the room, leaving the door open. I listened for the sound of her heeled steps as she hurried away, down the hall, but instead I heard the soft clicking as the door was closed, then those heels' approach in the soft carpet. Realizing she apparently was going to stay, I muttered an apology.

"Don't apologize," she said, coming further into the room. "I mean, who better to know than a woman who looks at other women," her voice took an even lower timbre, "Right?" A shiver raced down my spine.

I turned to her, eyes narrowed. "Don't play with me, Alley. I'm not a confused kid anymore."

"You're right," she raised a hand in supplication. "I'm sorry."

I plopped down in one of the four chairs that surrounded the round table in the corner of the room.

"Why didn't you come tonight? I mean," she smiled, "I really didn't think you would, but I just wondered why not." Alley walked over to the bed and sat on the edge, one leg crossed over the other. It took all my willpower to not focus on the cleavage that rose and fell with each breath, nor for my eyes to follow the dark tunnel of shadow that began where her legs crossed.

"I've had enough of this reunion thing." I smiled weakly at her. "I saw what I came to see, and am done with the whole thing."

"What did you come to see?" She cocked her head lightly to the side, eyeing me through those green eyes, accented with smoky makeup. Could she get any sexier?

Hmm. How to answer that. I began to trace a pattern on the smooth table top with the tip of my finger. "Some old ghosts, I guess."

"Have they been exorcised?" She reached a hand out, flat on the bed, her weight on that arm.

"I don't think so." Laughing full out, I ran a hand through my ponytail, pulling around to play with it. Her eyes followed my every movement. "To be honest, I hadn't realized I even had some of those ghosts. I imagine my surprise," this last said in quiet surprise and contemplation.

"I'm sorry to hear that," she said softly. I shrugged, leaning back in the chair.

"It's okay. I'll leave here and go back to my life where everything has its order and makes sense."

"Back to Ireland?" she nodded toward my luggage. I nodded.

"Yes, back to Ireland."

"Where your old friend is,"

It was my turn to cock my head to the side in question. "How did you know?"

"About your taste for Irish cream?" her eyes were sparkling. I threw my head back and burst into laughter.

"Oh, Alley, that is nasty."

"Sorry. I couldn't resist." She joined me in my laughter. Finally when we both settled down, it was nice. Tension had been broken, and I felt more relaxed.

"Yes, if you want to put it that way."

"I don't know. Guess deduction and a good guess. When I saw you again, at the house this morning, memories began to flood back. Various things you and I had done when we were younger, rumors that had gone around about you. Also having more experience now than I did then, your actions." She leaned slightly forward, the bodice of her dress leaning forward right along with her. "Now I can spot attraction much better."

"Ah," I looked down at my finger, still nervously drawing on the table. "So you wagered a guess today with my Gaelic friend?"

"Yes."

"Ah," I said again.

"When?"

"When what?"

"When did you finally come out? That must have been so difficult for you growing up," the look of concern on her face warmed me. Oh, you have no idea, love. No idea at all.

"Yes, it was very hard, and I finally garnered the courage when I was twenty-one. A trusted friend and I were both wondering, so we decided to find out together," I smirked.

"Eureka."

"Something like that."

"I'm bummed that this weekend is basically over," Alley sighed, leaning back again, staring down at her foot, which swayed too and fro.

"Why?"

"Well," she sighed, "I miss home sometimes. It's been nice to see my mom and Collin. I haven't been home since Christmas."

"You're doing better than I," I grinned. She smiled.

"And, to be honest, now that I've met up with you again, I'd like to get to know who you've become."

"What about your other friends?" I felt the blood in my veins zing at her words

She snorted, waving the idea off. "You know, I may have had more friends than you did in school, Hunter, but I assure you- friends they are not. There's not one in the bunch I wanted to keep in contact with after graduation. A bunch of narrow minded, stuck up, pompous asses."

"Tell me how you really feel,"

She raised a brow at me. "You're the writer, which, thank you for signing my book. Now you just have to sign the other three, and you're good to go."

"Gladly. And I'm sorry it turned out that way, Alley. I could have told you that then, you know. Saved you a lot of trouble and hairspray."

She glared at me, and I laughed.

"So what are your plans this summer, now that school is finally done for you?" I asked, sobering. She blew out a breath.

"God, I don't know. I've been in school for twenty-three years. I haven't a clue what to do with myself now." She laughed, shaking her head. "Wait for my job to start up in August. I've been teaching at Stanford since I got my masters," she explained.

"Come to Ireland" The words were out of my mouth before I could even think, and once they were out, I wanted to take them back.

Alley studied me for a long time, that same cocked head stance, eyes half-hooded as she seemed to be sizing me and the invite up.

"Okay." Her reply was simple and seemed spontaneous, though I knew she'd been thinking it out as she stared at me.

Gulp.

^^^

Alley left not long after that, wanting to get home and out of the dress. Though I kept mum, I could think of tons of ways for her to get out of that dress.

She stayed in Pueblo for the week, visiting with her mother and brother, and I went to visit my own family, though only staying for an additional day. Finally I was on the flight back home. Alley and I made plans for her to arrive in a week and a half.

Looking around my cottage, I tried to think of any and everything that would make my old friends' stay that much better. Sure, I'd take her around to all the sites around Ireland, castles, history, and the like. But I wanted it to be a trip she'd never forget.

Finally the day arrived for me to pick Alley up at the airport. As I drove up, I saw the big white planes with the green shamrock on the tail pulling in, and I couldn't help but wonder if one of them were Alley's plane.

Soon enough, I saw her coming down the way, a carry-on bag hanging from her shoulder, looking weary and tired from such a long trip.

Raising a hand, she saw me and smiled. I smiled back, pushing off the wall I'd been leaning against for the past forty-five minutes, and met her. She hugged me, the warmth of her body against me making me close my eyes and absorb her- her feel, her smell, her very essence.

"Here, let me take this," I slid the strap of the bag down her arm, and she gladly gave it up. "Jesus, did you pack your entire apartment in here?" I heaved the hundred-weight bag onto my shoulder, grinning as I was smacked on the arm.

Within an hour, all of Alley luggage had been claimed, and we were on our way to my house. Unfortunately it was dark, so she was missing the show as the amazing beauty of Ireland passed by.

Eventually she nodded off. The trip wasn't long to my house, but I wanted to keep driving, just so I could have her next to me, so peaceful and beautiful. Her head was to the side, face, so relaxed in sleep, facing me. I studied her features, the soft skin, dark blonde brows, straight nose, full lips. She took my breath away all over again.

"Alley?" I nudged her gently, turning the engine off. She moaned, smacking her lips, eyes still closed. I smiled, enchanted. "Alley? Wake up. We're here." Resting my hand on her arm, I squeezed. Green eyes, hidden in the darkness of the car, opened. Realizing where she was, she quickly sat up, looking around.

"God, I'm sorry," yawning, she ran her hands through her hair.

"It's okay. I know it's a long flight. Come on." Opening the car door, the small space was suddenly flooded with harsh light. Squinting, Alley made her way out. I had already gone to the back of the car, opened the trunk, and began to bring out her luggage.

Eventually we got into the house, me holding the front door open for Alley so she could go inside. I kicked the door closed with my foot, and in the dark headed down the hall, my steps echoing off the wood floor.

Using my shoulder, I clicked the light on, showing the small spare bedroom. The brass bed gleamed, its antique surface refurbished by me a couple years ago. A warm, handmade quilt covered it, as the nights could be awfully cold on the island.

"Will this due?" I asked, turning to see Alley trying not to step on two very curious cats, winding about her legs. "Guys," I hurried over to her, shooing my pets away and smiling sheepishly at the sleepy woman. "Sorry,"

"It's okay. I love cats." Alley smile, kneeling and trying to pet the two cats who were vying for her attention. "Friendly little guys. What are their names?' Both black cats, one with green eyes, one with yellow, closed their eyes as they began to purr under the gentle caresses. "And this is perfect, Hunter," Alley smiled up at me, and I got all shy and gooey. Again.

"Okay. Well, it's late and I know you're tired. I'll take you around tomorrow, okay?" I walked over to the wardrobe, pulling out a couple of fluffy pillows, tossing them to the bed. "Incase you want them. Um," sticking my hands in my back pockets, I looked around the room before my gaze fell back on the standing blonde. "Is there anything you need? If you need towels, the bathroom is just across the hall-"

"Hunter," Alley smiled, walking toward me. She squeezed my shoulder. "I'm fine. Thank you. I'll see you in the morning, okay?"

"Okay," I took a deep breath, trying to let my nerves out with it. "Goodnight, then."

"Goodnight," she said softly, stepping away from me. I gathered the two cats, about to walk out when I turned.

"Oh, this is Stan and his sister Iris." With that, I left her to sleep.

^^^

I woke up with a giggle on my lips as I remembered who my houseguest was, just a room over.

After a trip to the bathroom, I hurried to the kitchen, trying not to trip on my two cats, trying to get my attention as they wanted breakfast.

"Okay, okay. Jeesh," pouring kibbles into twin bowls, my pests hurry to them, chewing contentedly as I started coffee. I was trying to keep as quiet as possible, wanting Alley to sleep as late as she needed or wanted.

"Do I smell coffee?"

I turned from the open fridge door, my heart beating double time. Alley stood there, short hair every which way, t-shirt half caught in the waistband of some very familiar-looking shorts.

"You still have those?" I asked, pointing toward the shorts with a block of cheddar I'd grabbed. She looked down at herself, then grinned up at me.

"Hey, they're still comfy to sleep in."

I chuckled, pointing toward the cabinet next to the microwave. "Mugs are in there, sugar's in that jar, and cream is in the fridge," I wiggled the bottle of flavored cream from the fridge door. It was snatched out of my fingers, and Alley made herself a cup of coffee.

My old friend held the mug between her hands, bringing it to her nose as she inhaled the rich odor, eyes closing in pleasure.

"Come on, I want to show you something." I grabbed my own cup of coffee, dropping the block of cheese to the counter. Alley followed me to the back door, which I unlocked, then turned to her, leaning against it. "Close your eyes,"

She looked at me like I was nuts for a moment, then played along, shielding those beautiful eyes. Taking hold of a hand, I led her outside, positioning her in the best place.

"Open," I said, close to her ear.

Alley gasped as she saw what lay before her. Hills of the brightest, most beautiful green imaginable were all around us, the early morning fog brushing the tops of the blades of the natural grasses, the fog breaking in the distance, only enough to allow the tallest spire of a castle, about a half a mile away, to show through.

"My god," she breathed, looking all around her, taking in the land, the house behind her, then back to the castle. "I feel like I've gone back in time or something. A fairytale right out there," she pointed at the castle. Turning back to me, she smiled, pure pleasure shining from her face. I couldn't keep my own smile at bay.

"That view right there is why I bought the place," I said, my voice quiet. I've always felt it sacrilege to speak very loudly at times like this.

"I could stand out here all day and look at this. I'm speechless."

I smiled, understanding her feelings. "Go ahead if you want to. I'm going to get started on breakfast." Slipping away quietly, I watched through the window as Alley sipped her coffee, walking around, touching, seeing, raising her face to the sky to inhale the pure air.

Grabbing a sweatshirt, I left it on the counter by the door, knowing she'd need it as she headed back in, arms tucked into her body.

"Oh, chilly out there,"

I nodded, pointing toward the fleece shirt as I spread another slice of bacon to sizzle in the skillet.

"Ohh, brrr, thanks," she slipped it on, then downed the rest of her coffee, refilling her cup and topping off my own. "I can't wait to see what this place has to offer." She grinned, her eyes filled with curiosity and excitement. "I think what amazes me the most is all the history that's around us, you know? I mean, in the US we have history, but it's mainly either prehistoric, or only a few hundred years old. But this place," her voice trailed off as she looked outside, sipping from her coffee.

"I know." The smile spread quickly across my face, feeling my love for the country I call my second home. "I'm amazed all over again every day."

We chatted as we ate breakfast, me asking Alley all about her flight, and how it felt to now officially be an international traveler. We also talked about what we wanted to do, and where I intended to take her.

Alley listened intently as I explained things to her, told her the history of the castle that could be seen from my house. I took her around, showing her all the places that Anne would have seen from my novel, where I went while writing it, what had inspired me.

It was a day filled with wonder, not only for Alley, but for me as well. The look in her expressive eyes was so worth it for me. They grew huge when she was amazed, narrowed when she was confused or pondering something. Her curiosity and questions were endless, and I loved them, loved answering them, and loved that she took interest in what I had to show her, and what moved me.

^^^

"I can't believe half my trip is over," Alley sighed, sitting back against the cushions of the couch, her green eyes turned gray from the flames she stared into.

"I know. It went so fast." I sipped from my mug of coffee, also staring into the dancing flames that licked the logs in the fireplace. It had been a week of bliss. My nervousness around her had calmed, and disappeared. It felt so right, so comfortable to be around Alley, and I was grateful. Even when we were younger, and I'd be at her house for the billionth time, there was still a part of me that had felt nervous and always ill at ease, as though I had to keep my guard up. I had always been so afraid that she would figure out my crush, or that she, too, would reject me.

Now it was just a close, comfortable friendship that I relished, cherished, and was proud of. I had managed to enjoy my time with her without giving myself away, and in fact had managed to set those feelings aside. I had been able to just enjoy Alley for the wonderful, beautiful person she was.

Though I had to admit to stealing a glance at every opportunity.

"Hunter?" she said, her voice soft as she interrupted my thoughts.

"Hmm?" I set my empty mug on the coffee table and turned on the couch so I was tucked into the corner, able to easily give her my full attention.

"Can I ask you a question?" Her eyes were still focused on the fire.

"Of course."

"I have to warn you," she glanced at me. "This is going to sound extremely egotistical, and I apologize for that." My heart began to do a little pitty patter in my chest, wondering what she wanted to know.

"Alright." I waited as she paused, sipping from her own mug. Finally her gaze met my own.

"Back in school, when we used to hang out,"

"Yeah,'

"You had a crush on me, didn't you?" Though it was a question, somehow I almost got the feeling it was rhetorical. I sighed, making room on my lap for Iris, who climbed down from the back of the couch. I absently ran my fingers through her rabbit soft fur as I nodded.

"Yeah." Iris closed her green eyes in pleasurable contentment.

"Melissa used to tell me that all the time," Alley watched the movement of my hand, a finger reaching out to stroke Iris' nose, between the cat's eyes. We both smiled as the feline let out a purry sigh.

"Did she?"

"Yes. I thought she was just being a dork, you know, trying to add to the stupid rumors about you. Used to piss me off, really." She looked up at me. "Not for the reasons you think." Her eyes fell to my cat again. "It pissed me off because it was just adding to more of the shit people said about you, and I hated that. Finally, one day I realized she was telling the truth."

"Garden of the Gods," I whispered, suddenly getting a hint of clarity. She nodded.

"Garden of the Gods." She looked up at me again, this time her gaze holding. "It scared me. I could see it all reflected in your eyes, and knew at that moment you'd do anything for me, always be there for me. It reassured me in so many ways, many ways, really. But it did scare me."

"I'm sorry."

"Please don't be. I'm not sure you realize just how much your friendship meant to me. It still does, Hunter." I stared into her eyes for a long time, breathing in her existence, seeing all that she was, and not what I'd merely created in my head from a childhood fantasy. She was the real thing. So much better then the fantasy, really. All except for one thing. I sighed, somewhat sad.

"You mean a lot to me, too, Alley."

She smiled, leaning forward, just enough to leave a lingering kiss on my forehead. My eyes closed, slowly opening as she moved away, standing.

"I'm going to head to bed," she said softly. "Goodnight, Hunter."

"Night." I watched her go, her form slowly disappearing as she shadows from the fire ate her up. Alone, I looked into the flames again, searching for answers that I dare not seek. How could one woman bring me such heaven yet leave me in such hell?

^^^

I heard the soft padding of bare feet on wood flooring, then the ruffling of bedding being pulled aside. It didn't truly enter my conscious brain, though, until I felt the body heat of another slid in beside me.

Starting, I glanced over my shoulder to see Alley looking at me. Turning, I faced her with drawn brows.

"Are you okay? What's wrong?"

"Shh, I'm okay." She turned over, her back to me. "I just needed to be close to you." She looked at over her own shoulder. "Hold me?" there was such pleading in her voice and in her eyes, I couldn't say no.

Without a word, I scooted over to her, molding my body to hers and wrapped my arm around her waist, snaking the other one underneath her pillow until I pulled her completely back into me, my hands locking securely around her. She snuggled into me, and within moments I heard the soft breathing of sleep.

I soon joined her.

For now I just relished in the feel of her. When we were younger, I'd been so terrified of touching her, even accidentally. I was so afraid that she would have misinterpreted it as something it wasn't. Now, she knew me, knew my secret, and yet she still wanted me to touch her.

With a small sigh, I slipped into the darkness.

^^^

My first tactile realization was soft, warm skin under my palm and fingers. I moved said fingers, trying to figure out what was what, and to feel more of the hot skin, in my still slumbering brain. Smooth muscle, quivering slightly, as my fingers continued to move. A sigh escaped me as my thumb rubbed against smooth, cool rounded flesh.

I felt slight movement, and the warm body against my front, pressing closer. Instinctively I cradled that body, my thumb continuing to graze across that smooth skin.

What finally piqued my conscious mind was when I heard a small moan that ended in a sigh.

Eyes popping open, I saw the blonde hair before my eyes, felt Alley's body moving slightly against me. I also realized my hand was beneath her t-shirt, my thumb resting on the underside of the swell of her breast.

I froze, trying to decide what to do. I wasn't sure if Alley were awake, and if not, I didn't want to wake her. If so, I didn't want her to think I was making a big deal out of it.

Removing my thumb, I slowly began to move my hand down the smooth skin of her stomach, hating the loss, but knowing I had to. The soft material of her shirt wisped over my hand as I left the confines.

As soon as I was free of her body, I rolled over to my other side, back to Alley, squeezing my eyes shut as I mentally cursed myself. Then my eyes flew open as I heard movement behind me, then felt Alley's warmth caressing me again.

She said nothing, but I could feel her breath on the side of my neck as she rested her chin on my shoulder, arm snaking over my waist. Her hand found mine, entwining our fingers. I tried to keep my body rigid, unwilling to conform to the shape of the body behind me.

"Relax," I heard whispered in my ear. My eyes squeezed shut again, my body traitorous as it filled with warmth. I couldn't relax, my body reacting to her nearness, though I knew I couldn't. "I told you when I saw you on Oprah that you inspired me, Hunter," she said, her thumb caressing the back of my hand. "You had always stuck by your own truth, with your talent and your desires,"

I was trying to regulate my breathing, not wanting her to know just how much she was affecting me.

"You made me realize my own truth. I was unhappy in my marriage, and had no idea why." She leaned her head against mine, just barely rubbing her cheek against the side of my head.

"What are you doing, Alley?" I whispered.

"I'm trying to explain," she said.

"Explain what?"

"Explain why I'm here with you. Explain why I left my husband. I've been lying to myself for so long, Hunter. I stayed away from you after that night at Garden of the Gods because I didn't know what to do with my own emotions. I was confused and hated the feeling, so I pushed you away."

My stomach was turning, flipping around and around. I was torn between her words and what I wanted, and my own fears.

"I came to the reunion for one reason, and that was to see you. I wanted to know if after all these years your presence could still make me smile, still make me feel wanted and, well, like what I said and did really mattered."

"So, basically you wanted to see if I could still boost your ego." My words were a bit harsher than I intended, but I couldn't allow my heart to fall. Every day with her was a battle of my will as it was.

"Ouch," she sighed, her thumb stilling for a moment. "I guess I deserved that. And at first that may have been the truth. But as time went on, and I got to spend more and more time with you, that no longer mattered. I wanted to spend time with you, Hunter. God, I was so nervous about coming out here to Ireland." She chuckled softly. "I was afraid of being alone with you. Not because of anything you would do," she squeezed my hand. "I trust you implicitly. The problem is," she paused again, and I held my breath. "I don't trust myself."

I turned over to my back, looking up at her. She held her head on her hand now, looking down at me.

"What do you want from me, Alley?" I asked, my voice calm, belying the tempest of emotions swirling inside me. "Do you want me to teach you? Initiate you into the world of sexually confused women?" my words were not mean, nor intended to be so, and I think she knew that. She smiled, though a bit sadly, then shook her head.

"No. I guess I haven't been making myself clear at all. I don't know how it happened, and at this point I'm just thrilled as hell that I'm able to admit it to myself, let alone you." She poked me and I laughed, Pillsbury Dough Boy style. This made her smile grow. "I'm falling for you, Hunter, and I'm scared to death, and don't know what to do about it."

I just looked up at her in stunned silence. This woman, so petit and angelic, the only person on the planet that could make an author's well of words run dry.

"Do you still have a crush on me?" she asked, looking at me through her bangs, her voice so small and uncertain. I snorted, nodding as I turned away. She rested her fingers on my chin, bringing my face back toward her. "Hunter?" I swallowed, looking up at her, my heart about to beat out of my chest. "Will you please kiss me?"

I said nothing, just reached my hand up to the back of her head, tugging lightly. She obliged, green eyes closing as she got nearer.

The feel of Alley's lips was more than the sum of the hundreds of dreams I'd had about her over the years. They were soft, heaven against me. Her breathing was shallow, though I guessed it had more to do with her nerves than anything else. The hand that rested on the back of her head began to wander into the strands of her thick hair, feeling its softness fall around my fingers.

I wanted to take it slow, this first kiss. I wanted her to know all that I had for her, all that I had felt and feel. I moved my lips against hers, feeling the way our lips slid together, the feel of her warm breath mingling with mine. Her mouth opened a bit more, and I followed, keeping my tongue out of things, but just letting our mouths slide together, letting her get used to the feel and closeness. Slow torture.

She lowered her body just a bit, her right breast resting against my side. Gently, I maneuvered her so that she was lying on top of me, my hand still in her hair, the other resting on her lower back.

Alley moaned lightly at the position change, and I felt the tip of her tongue licking my bottom lip. I sighed into the kiss, meeting her tongue, caressing it with my own, gently sucking it into my mouth. She moved more fully onto me, resting her elbows on either side of my head, one hand resting on the side of my neck, the other burying itself in my hair.

I loved the feel of her weight resting on me, the warmth of her skin, softness of her breasts against mine, two thin layers of clothing separating them. I loved the feel of her bare, smooth legs against my own.

The kiss deepened, and my hand left her hair, my arms wrapping around her, trying to pull her as close to me as was humanly possible.

Breaking the kiss, my breathing nearly out of control, I hugged her to me, burying my face in her neck.

"God," I breathed, "Do you have any idea how long I've wanted to do that?"

She raised her head, looking down at me, shook her head.

"Since that night we were in Jennifer Martin's front yard, when she and I had been spying on her cousin's friend," I grinned at the memory. She looked stunned.

"That long ago?" I nodded. "Why didn't you?" she began to caress my face with her fingertips.

"Oh, right. Would you have freaked?"

"Probably," she smiled shyly. "But I won't freak now."

"No," I kissed her again, slowly moving us until she was lying under me. I moved my kisses to her face, jaw line, then teased her earlobe before whispering, "Alley?"

"Hmm?" she hummed.

"I want to make love to you."

"Oh, yes, Hunter. Please, baby," she moaned, her hands wandering all over my back, shyly running over my boxers-clad butt before returning to my back.

I explored every inch of Alley with my hands and mouth, slowly raising her t-shirt, exposing the skin of her stomach that had burned my fingers earlier that morning. I licked a trail of fire up the center line of her stomach, my tongue hitting the material of the cotton shirt. When her breasts became visible, I sighed in absolute joy.

I was put in a daze by the way they filled my hands, the way Alley moaned, eyes closed, head arched, as I took a rigid nipple in my mouth, coaxing it to life with my tongue.

Alley was amazingly responsive as I slowly took the t-shirt off then got to my knees, pulling her shorts and panties down her legs, tossing them to the floor, followed by my own. Still kneeling between her legs, I looked at her, running my hands over the warmth of her skin.

Her body was as beautiful as I had been in high school; in fact, I thought it was even more beautiful. Now it had the look of a mature woman, and not that of a young girl.

As I laid my body down, skin on skin, Alley gasped. I kissed her again, wanting her so badly. Nearly fifteen years of bottled up desire poured from me.

"Oh, Hunter," Alley breathed as my mouth found hers again. I moved between her legs, reaching down to spread myself open, resting against here again. We both moaned at the contact, and I reached down to raise Alley's thighs higher.

As I moved my hips slowly against her, Alley kissed me, and she kissed me hard. Her hands wandered all over my back, nails digging into the skin of my shoulders as her sex became more slick, sliding against mine, both of our thighs covered from the abundance of wetness.

Her breathy moans turned into pants as once again my mouth found her breasts, her hips thrusting up into mine as I took her nipple between my teeth.

"Kiss me, baby," she begged, pulling my mouth to hers. I swallowed her moans as she got closer, her hands reaching down to press me further into her. I obliged, my own body on fire and ready to explode, my hips moving faster against her, the bed squeaking with the frantic pace I was setting.

I bet the skin of Alley's neck as I came, her following me just a few thrusts later. I was stunned, not even having time to calm down or regroup, I found myself on my back, a very passionate blonde above me.

We made love into the late afternoon, my heart so full I could cry. It had taken nearly fifteen years, but I finally found the one thing that I had always craved- acceptance. Alley had seen my most horrible, awkward phases, and it didn't matter. When she told me she loved me later that day, as we lay curled up before the fire, I made slow, passionate love to her, showing her through action that I had loved her for half my life.

Eventually I bought some property in northern California, and we built a house. We come to the cottage often, a wonderful place to escape to during Alley's summers off from Berkley. I continue to write, and continue to love my first and only love.

The End

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