(Growing Up Fast chapter 13)

I'll always remember my eighteenth birthday as the day I really started to grow up. Not that I felt that way about it at the time, but whenever I look back on it, I see that day as the end of my childhood. And there was a really good reason for it.

I duly let Michael know that nobody was planning anything for me, and he appeared in front of the house about six or so, just around the time another stupendous Hawaiian sunset got under way. I had packed a beach bag with a towel, a T-shirt and shorts, and a pair of flip-flops, as he'd asked. I was wondering all the while what he had in mind. The beach, after dark? I'd heard there are often sharks in Hawaii's waters, but I trusted Michael enough not to worry about that. I just couldn't figure out what else there was to do there.

It turned out that he knew a small secluded beach that took us more than half an hour to drive to; it was situated way up the eastern coast of Oahu and could be reached only by parking as far off the coastal road as he could get, and then leading me down a narrow, twisting footpath that eventually wound down to the beach itself. Once we finally got onto the sand, he led me to the edge of the water, where the waves were rolling in on us in long swooshing breakers. "Now watch this," he said, taking my hand and pointing out to the waves. "We have to be patient—sometimes it takes a while. But if we're lucky, you'll see it."

I wanted to ask what, but the soft roar of the waves was too mesmerizing. We lived too far from the ocean to hear it from our house, but I've always enjoyed listening to it. After about ten minutes of just standing there, during which I noticed the tide was starting to come in and was getting my feet wet with surprisingly warm water, Michael abruptly went still beside me, then pointed. "Look," he hissed excitedly. "See that? In the foam?"

I peered out at the next incoming wave and then realized that the foam on the water between us and that wave was glowing, ever so gently. "Wow," I breathed, astonished. "What causes that? That's so cool!"

"Phosphorescence," he said and grinned. "Isn't it amazing? For some reason I've never seen it anywhere but on this beach. I wanted you to see it too." He turned to face me, gathered me into his arms and kissed me.

This kiss wasn't exactly like all the others we'd had before. I had the sense that he meant business with this one. And something about it was really pulling me under, so that I started returning his every move. I was so into him that it actually took me a minute before I realized he was untying the string that held my bikini top together. I'd worn the silver one Kelley had given me earlier in the day, and he had very carefully waited to whistle at me till we were on the way to this beach.

Though I became aware of what he was doing, I didn't stop him. I'd never quite "got" the idea that a girl would want to show some guy her breasts; I'd always thought that if one ever tried to insist on it, I'd shy away and tell him to cool his jets. But that didn't happen with Michael. In fact, I really wanted him to see them, to touch them, to teach me what all the breathless hoopla was about. So I let him untie the strings and pull away the top, and when his warm palms stroked me, I gasped into his mouth.

He pulled back and looked at me, without ceasing his movements. "Are you okay?"

I nodded. "I just didn't know it'd feel like that. At least, not with you." I almost said something incredibly stupid like, I guess that means you're the right one for me, but I sealed my lips shut till the words faded away.

He smiled. "I'm gonna tell you a secret," he said in a whisper I could barely make out over the rushing waves. "I've never wanted to go this far with a girl before."

"Oh?" I said, wondering why that was significant.

Michael huffed a laugh. "I sometimes forget you're not from around here—feels like I've known you longer than just a couple of months. There used to be rumors. I'd hear the whispers in high school, y'know. I had my share of dates, but nobody ever made me feel as if I wanted to go all the way with her." As he spoke, his thumb was circling my nipple, rubbing it and raising a reaction in me that was beginning to make me deaf to his words. "In my senior year, one girl just about stripped in front of me, all the way down to a G-string, and made me touch her." He shrugged, looking a bit embarrassed. "I understood what the big deal was, but I couldn't figure out how on earth those rumors ever got started about me, and I remember I was thinking something like, hey, might as well give 'em something to talk about. So I just did whatever she told me to do, and she was writhing and moaning all over the place." He paused; I had closed my eyes by now and was trying to concentrate on the sensation of his thumb. "Hey, Toni, you okay?"

I managed to get my eyes open and saw that he was grinning again. "Tell me later," I begged. "Right now I just want you to shut up and keep touching me."

His grin softened into a smile and he leaned forward and kissed me for a moment; then he actually bent down and drew my nipple into his mouth. All I remember for the next few minutes was the incredible way that felt. The more he did, the more I wanted, even if I didn't know exactly what it was I wanted. After a couple of minutes he switched breasts, and the night breeze cooled my skin, while he ran his thumb over the wet goose bumps he'd raised on me and I finally collapsed to the sand, unable to stand any longer.

He followed me down, kissed me again and murmured, "Don't be shy, Toni. You can touch me anywhere you want. I wish you would."

I started out caressing his back, but when his hands began to push at the bottom of my suit, I got a little bolder and let my own hands stray under the waistband of his swim trunks. He murmured encouragement at me, his mind obviously on my body; I knew in the back of my increasingly drunken brain that he was arousing the everlasting daylights out of me, and I loved it. I just wanted more, and to get it, I began to mimic some of the things he was doing to me. He started licking a trail from my breasts down to my stomach, kneeling till I could no longer reach anything but that silky jet-black hair of his. I tangled my hands in it and sort of massaged his scalp as I was playing with his hair; faintly I could hear him moaning as he sank lower and started pushing the rest of my suit off me.

Everywhere he touched me, I felt as though I were on fire. I hardly noticed when he had me completely nude, and I was so lost it never occurred to me that we were technically in a public place. His mouth kept leaving that wet trail, lower and lower, and I remember wondering hazily where the heck he'd learned to do all this, before his finger stroked me in a spot nobody had ever touched, and I realized how wet I was there. But the physical sensation was so overwhelming that I had no time to react, except with another gasp, before he nestled his head between my thighs and started licking.

When I think back on this, I can only imagine what I must have looked like, if there'd been anyone to see me—holding his head between my legs like that and helplessly rocking my lower body, breathing as though I'd been fleeing muggers, moaning on every exhalation. And stark naked on top of it. But I'd do it all over again, because I'd never felt like that in all my life, and it was totally addicting. I never wanted him to stop.

The sensation kept building, up and up and up. I'd closed my eyes long since, shutting out the most intrusive sense, to better concentrate on what I was feeling. And it was so overwhelming that I didn't realize I was gradually swaying farther and farther back and forth, till I vaguely felt a hand plant itself on my rear end to hold me in place. The very next second, the tsunami broke. My moan became a half-shrieked "Oh!" and I kept bucking and bucking, till the last of it subsided and I had a chance to catch my breath.

I could hear him, half drowned in the roar of the ocean, growling my name from somewhere. He left me altogether for a second or two, then caught me and kissed me hard, while I was still reeling and still had my eyes closed. He grabbed one hand and pressed it against his trunks, and there was that long, hot, hard ridge again. This time I felt it pulse now and again. Carried on the momentum of the first real sexual experience I'd ever had, I went a little crazy—pushed his trunks down to free him and began running my hand up and down the hot skin. I'd never felt anything so smooth.

"Toni, you're...gonna make me..." He never finished the sentence, but started jerking back and forth just like I had. He groaned aloud, went stock-still and then began to breathe loudly and heavily.

Finally I opened my eyes and stared at him. "What's wrong?"

"I've got to...be in you," he managed, begging me with his eyes.

Would it feel as good as what he'd just done to me? I jut nodded and found the towel in my tote bag, snapping it out and spreading it on the sand. He watched as if in a trance, and when I kissed him and gathered him gently in one hand at the same time, he snapped back into action, rubbing his finger where his mouth had been moments before. I was truly shocked when I felt my own arousal begin to mount all over again. I don't know where he learned how to make me feel so good, but I'm grateful, because it told me then and now that he really wanted it to be as good for me as for him.

He didn't bother speaking; I guess he was too out of control. He just probed carefully, moaning faintly with the strain he must have been feeling, till he found the right place, then slid into me till we were both sure he was really in. Then he pushed hard.

I let out a startled cry when a pain flooded through my entire pelvic region. He froze in place, met my gaze and tipped his head slightly to one side, his features full of mixed surprise and worry. "I'll fix it," he grated, his voice nothing more than a bass rasp, and reached down with his finger. It worked to a certain point; I felt good, but not like I'd felt before. But Michael finally attained his own release, and that was all that mattered to me.

He almost fell atop me, his breathing labored and a little wheezy, and I wrapped my arms around him and held on, running one hand along his back. I was surprised to feel the perspiration there. I could have held onto him all night; it just felt right.

After a long time he lifted his head and looked at me. "I hurt you, didn't I?"

I drew on what little I'd been told by Mother—who somehow had never quite gotten around to discussing the birds and the bees to us in much depth—and what I'd managed to glean from reading library books. "I don't think you could've helped it," I said softly, reaching up to put my hand on his cheek. "But the way you tried to ease the pain...that was so sweet and thoughtful. And what you did before..." I closed my eyes and smiled blissfully at the memory. "Ooohh, Michael."

I remember thinking later that evening that I probably sounded like some moronic bimbo when I said that, but he just laughed softly, and gave me a gentle, lingering kiss. "You must've liked it," he teased me. "You just about went ballistic."

"It was the most amazing thing that ever happened to me," I said honestly. Yes, it even beat out getting to be on TV. I stared up at him in the dim light from the stars. "How on earth did you ever learn to do that?"

That made him grin again and withdraw from me; I'd felt him shrink right out of me a little bit earlier, which had taught me something else and made me have to take very great care not to burst out laughing at the sensation. He rolled over onto one side and gathered up our suits, handing me mine and starting to work his on while he talked. "Well, that was what you interrupted earlier. That girl who stripped for me taught me everything. I have no idea where she learned it all, but she was some teacher. She told me exactly what she wanted me to do to her and walked me through every step, and if she thought I wasn't doing it to her satisfaction, she made me do it again." He shook his head. "I felt like some kind of apprentice gigolo or something. So I told her the next day that I wanted to just be friends with her. But I made sure I remembered that night. I wanted to recall whatever she taught me, so that when I finally found a girl I really wanted to do it with, I could do it right. So...did I?"

I grinned back at him as I pulled on my own suit. "Well, my lack of experience notwithstanding, I'd say you did it right and then some."

Michael, halfway to his feet to finish tugging on his suit, paused long enough to give me a warm smile. "That makes me feel better, then. All the way through, when I could barely hold myself back, I kept having this nagging feeling I was forcing you."

"Believe me," I said firmly, "you should know me well enough by now to know that if I hadn't wanted you to do it, I wouldn't've let you."

"No," he agreed at some length, "I guess not." He knelt behind me and tied my bikini-top strings together; then he arose and took my hand to boost me to my feet. "You know, it just occurred to me, we're probably really lucky we didn't get caught here. It's not like it's a private beach or anything. Think we better make tracks before the cops stumble over us and decide we're up to no good." I laughed, and we gathered up our stuff and headed back to his car.

On our way back towards Honolulu, I began to get a weird feeling in my gut, which didn't become clear till we weren't very far from Kelley's neighborhood. Then I realized I didn't want to leave Michael. "What time is it?" I asked, hoping I sounded casual.

"Hm?" Michael blinked; I wondered if I'd interrupted some profound train of thought. He tipped his wrist to take a look at the watch that had never come off even in the midst of all our lovemaking, and said, "Almost ten-thirty, why?"

"Oh..." I began, searching for something that wouldn't sound stupid, and ended up shrugging one shoulder. "No reason, I guess."

He tossed me a curious look. "What, you got a curfew?"

"Well, mine's the same as Kelley's—one in the morning," I said. At least, I felt safe in assuming this; neither Uncle Tom nor Aunt Maureen had laid down any restrictions on me and didn't seem to worry about my being with Michael.

He made a noise of acceptance and rolled up to a red light. Other than that, though, he didn't comment, and I restrained a sigh, trying to resign myself to being dropped off at Kelley's place. The light turned green and he rolled forward.

A few minutes later he had parked in the driveway of Kelley's house and cut the engine; I began to reach for the door handle, but he stopped me. "Wait a minute, Toni," he said. "Before you go..."

I immediately turned back. "What?" I asked, probably too hopefully.

"I'm sorry I was so quiet on the drive back, but...I had some heavy thinking to do," he said, blowing out a breath. Something about his demeanor began to hatch a lot of hawks with big wingspans in my stomach. "I've never gone that far with a girl, never. I mean, I know you were a virgin before tonight, but, see...so was I."
I nodded faintly in wonder. Even thought he'd said he'd never done it, it still came as not just a surprise, but a welcome one.

"So I figured, since I was so attracted to you from that first day we met, and since it felt so damn good and so right with you...and since we both seem to fit so well together and all..." Michael hesitated, staring at me, his dark eyes blipping back and forth as he gazed at mine. "I gotta tell you, Toni. I love you."

The hawks burst free of my stomach and soared into the sky, trailing streamers and confetti behind them. I wanted to cheer; instead I told him what was in my heart. "All this summer I've felt so different from my normal self. I've never felt like this before and I never even knew I could. You're amazing, Michael, so amazing...and I love you too. I can't believe it really happened to me, but I really do love you."

His smile looked like the sun rising. He leaned over, pulled me toward him at the same time, and kissed me, so long and thoroughly that I felt that arousal kicking up all over again. But just when I was about ready to ask him if we could make out in the backseat or something, he let me go and smoothed my hair with one hand. "We've got a whole month in front of us, Toni honey," he said softly. "And I promise you, we're gonna make the most of it. I love you, okay? Have a good night, and I'll call you tomorrow." He kissed me again. "Happy birthday, honey."

I cradled his face in my hands and kissed him too, loath to leave. "Good night, and I love you," I murmured. Before I could burst into happy tears right in front of him, I got out and almost ran to the door, pausing there to wave till his taillights had vanished up the street and I was alone in the soft summer night.

Uncle Tom and Aunt Maureen were watching some TV show and didn't seem to notice me as I headed past and up the stairs for my room. Kelley must have heard me, for she popped in as soon as I dropped my tote bag on the bed. "Where'd you go? I thought you'd be out a lot later than that."

I was excited and incredibly happy. "C'mere, Kelley, and shut the door, quick. I just can't keep it to myself." I waited till she was sitting beside me on the bed, then said, "It happened."

She stared blankly at me. "What did?"

"Michael and I made love for the first time," I explained, in a hushed voice.

To my surprise, she slowly grinned. "I sort of thought so. You've got this look." She peered thoughtfully at me. "Well, so tell me. Was he good? I mean, there were so many rumors in school and all..."

I couldn't help smirking at her. "He was incredible. And you want to know what? He told me he knew all about those rumors, and said none of them were true. It was his first time too, just like it was mine."

Kelley's eyes and mouth all went round. "Holy paradise, Toni, you have no idea how lucky you are. There are dozens and dozens of girls all over this town who'd have killed to be in your shoes." She let herself flop back on the bed and stared at the ceiling for a minute, before sliding her eyes over to look at me. "Well," she said impishly, "now we can compare notes. Derek and I've been doing it since last Christmas."

If I'd had a mouthful of liquid, I'd have sprayed it all over the floor; I had to slap my hands over my mouth to keep my laughter from alerting her parents. "Oh my god!" I exclaimed when I'd calmed down a little. "And I bet Uncle Tom and Aunt Maureen are just as innocent as can be, huh?"

Giggling, Kelley shrugged and sat up. "Far as I know, they are." She wrapped an arm around me and squeezed. "Well, congratulations, cousin."

"I'll tell you what's even better. Michael told me he loves me," I said, bubbling over. "And I told him I'm in love with him too. I never thought I'd fall in love, after going all the way through high school without even getting a crush. But it's really happened!"

She grinned and winked at me, and we talked about our feelings for our guys for a while, till Aunt Maureen poked her head in and said she and Uncle Tom were heading for bed and we should think about it too. Kelley decided that was her cue to leave and departed, which was okay with me; I wanted to lie back and relive everything I'd been through that evening, and see if it could make me feel the same way.

It was when I was changing into my sleepwear that I saw the blood. It wasn't much, just a few splotches on the upper insides of my thighs. Fortunately, I'd read enough to understand what that meant, so I just smiled as I headed for the bathroom and cleaned it away while I brushed my teeth. It wasn't till I was in bed, in the dark and staring at the ceiling, that I began to wonder what this might mean for Michael and me from now on.

§ § §

August drifted by like an overheated dream. Having gotten over the big hurdle, Michael and I saw each other most days, and nearly every time we got together, we managed to find a place to make love—though we certainly didn't do that and nothing else; we talked a lot too, about everything under the sun and then some. We dreamed up ideas about our possible future together, supported each other's dreams and goals, and asked each other endless questions about each other, everything from our childhood memories to our stances on even the touchy stuff like religion and politics. But I guess we had our priorities at that young, carefree age: we tended to make love first, and then we'd lie together and talk our heads off, holding each other.

There came the day in the middle of the month when his parents had to take his two slacker brothers off to high school to register them for the coming year and arrange their class schedules. Michael had brought me over to meet them, which for me was a very good sign because it meant he was serious about his feelings for me. They were nice folks and spoke softly, with gentle Japanese accents; I noticed that Michael had been right and even they didn't address him by his birth name of Makoto! As soon as they left with the brothers, Michael wasted no time bustling me off to his room, where we made love for more than an hour. He pulled a library book out from under his bed and showed me some of the positions in it, and we even tried a couple, which ended up making us burst out laughing. But at one point he pretended to get aggressive and pushed me up against the wall, where he took me and actually made me scream. Thank goodness we were the only ones in the house!

By then my body had become accustomed to my newly active sex life and there was no pain at all. I'd had some stiffness and soreness the morning after my birthday, but it wore off before lunchtime and I never noticed anything odd again. Kelley and I did spend a few evenings comparing notes, and she said she too had felt a little stiff and sore after her first time and took a long hot bath to soak it away. Then there was the day she wanted to know if we were using anything, when I had less than two weeks before my departure.

I gave her a blank look; then I got it. "Oh," I murmured, frowning. "Well, no."

Kelley looked a little worried. "Be careful, Toni," she warned. "When was your last period, anyway?"

I thought about it. "Over a month ago, actually. But I always have irregular periods. Once I went almost two months between periods, when I was in tenth grade. I'll probably have one anytime now."

"Huh," she said, shaking her head. "I make Derek use condoms. If I told Mom I needed birth-control pills, she and Dad would be on their way to the moon, so it has to be him. You better make sure Michael's using something too—I'm sure your mother isn't any different from my parents."

She was right about that much, and her words put enough of a scare into me that I brought it up to Michael the next day when I saw him. He paused and stared at me, then squeezed his eyes closed and groaned. "Oh man...I never even thought of that. What a jerk I am! I'm sorry, Toni, I'm so sorry. I'll go pick up some right now, huh?"

I liked his reaction, but I was still worried as we went down to the nearest drugstore and I stood by, watching him peruse the selections. "What if..." I began, then slammed my mouth shut.

"Huh?" he murmured, concentrating on the display in front of him. He looked up and smiled. "Oh, don't worry, honey, I can get some lubricant to make these feel better."

He'd misunderstood me, but I let it pass, afraid of voicing the fear that even I didn't want to face. Absurdly, I decided in reckless fashion that if I didn't think about it, it'd just go away and nothing would happen. Having succeeded in squelching it, I leaned over and popped a kiss on his cheek, making him smile broadly at me.

Then all of a sudden, two days before I had to go home, something happened that eclipsed even that worry. We had known my time in Hawaii was fast running out, and had been talking about it uneasily for the last few days, trying to decide what we were going to do. Of course, we planned to stay in touch with each other; that much was a given. We had already exchanged addresses, and I had tucked the slip of paper with his in my purse, which would come on the plane with me and have much less chance of getting lost. He had begun thinking aloud about transferring from Transpacific Hawaii College, where he was halfway through his four-year program, to a school in southern California, so we could see each other and he'd have a chance to meet my parents and sisters.

We were sitting in chairs on the Matsunakis' patio trying to figure out what would happen to us next, when Mr. Matsunaki appeared in the sliding glass door and answered that question for us. "Michael, I'm sorry, but you must come inside and pack a suitcase. We are leaving for Japan on the next available flight."

We both stared at him. "What for? What's the big emergency?" Michael asked.

"Your grandfather has passed away, and we must go to your grandmother to help with funeral arrangements and deciding what to do with his holdings." Michael's father smiled sympathetically at me. "I'm sorry to cut your time with him short, Toni, but I'm afraid it's necessary."

I managed a smile. "It's okay, I understand. It's important."

He nodded, still smiling. "Yes, thank you. The flight leaves this evening, so make sure you wear something comfortable to sleep on the plane." He retreated inside.

Michael grumbled as he arose. "Don't see why we all have to be there, I'm sure Dad could take care of it himself." He noticed me, standing there uncertainly. "Come on up to my room with me, Toni. I'm gonna put off our parting as long as I can."

I gladly followed him up, and he closed his bedroom door and dragged a suitcase out of his closet, leaving the door open and staring at the clothes hanging inside. Then he rolled his eyes and gathered me into his arms. "I thought we'd have those last two days...drat my grandfather for his timing. Not that he could've known...oh, hell." Frustrated, he threaded the fingers of both hands into my hair. "Dammit, the more I think about it, the more I see why we've all been called. This is my mother's father we're talking about, and she's their only child. And from all I've ever heard, when my dad was offered his job here in Hawaii, she was more than glad to go in order to get out from under her parents' constrictions. They're ridiculously old-fashioned, and it's always been decreed that only a male descendant will receive any bequests after they die. So I suppose that's gonna be Dad. And I haven't seen my grandmother since I was a baby, so I can't remember her at all."

"I wish I could go with you," I said, trying to memorize every detail of his face. "But I don't even have a passport—I've never been outside this country."

He grinned. "Hey, if you hit the big-time in Hollywood, honey, then you'll probably be going to all sorts of exotic places on location. Don't worry, you've got plenty of time to see Japan. I promise I'll personally take you there and show you around." He pulled my head gently forward and kissed me. In that instant I wished we could lock his door and make love till it was time for him to leave.

He drew his head back, and I said the only words that would come out of me, in a voice thick with fast-approaching tears. "Michael, I love you."

He kissed me again, a soft peck. "I love you too, honey. But there's no reason to cry. I'm sure we'll be back here by the time the slacker twins have to start school, and I'll start looking into California schools and transferring my credits." We shared another kiss, which I tried to prolong before he ended it, winking at me. "Hey, I don't mind kissing you, but I'm not done talking yet. Now listen, I'll send you a postcard from Japan, and when we get back, I'll see if Mom and Dad'll let me give you a call and I'll tell you what the situation is. It'll be okay, right? We're not gonna let a couple thousand miles of ocean keep us apart."

"No, you're right," I managed, trying to control my tears. "I don't mean to cry, but I just...there's gonna be such a huge hole in my life til you can come to California."

"Mine too," he said softly. "Mine too." Finally he surrendered when I kissed him again, and we let it go on and on, caressing wherever we could, holding tight, till someone knocked on the door and called his name. We yanked apart and grinned sheepishly at each other. "I'm packing, okay?" he called.

"Is the stuff in your suitcase top-secret or something?" asked one of the "slacker twin" brothers. "Why do you have your door shut?"

"To keep you out," Michael retorted. "Get lost, I told you I'm packing. You don't have to check up on me."

"Yeah, yeah..." The voice retreated, and Michael kissed me again.

After a while he disentangled himself and threw a distasteful glance at the closet. "I wish I dared risk making love to you one more time." That kicked up the arousal, low in my body, and I impulsively pushed buttons through holes and bared myself to him.

"Do what you want," I said hopefully.

Well, he couldn't resist that, I guess, and within minutes we were really making out, so heavily that we were ready to take that risk Michael had mentioned. And then somebody dropped something with a loud, bumpy thud in the room next to Michael's, startling us so badly that it chased away most of our desire within a second.

He cursed low. "I think somebody's trying to send us a message," he remarked with a rueful grin. "Well, let me get packed, and then I'll see if I can get away for an hour or two so we can say goodbye properly."

As it turned out, he was thwarted in that area too, and had to take me back to Kelley's house in the end. He kissed me over and over in the car, murmuring "I love you" in between almost every kiss, barely waiting long enough for me to say the same thing to him before the next kiss. Finally he hugged me hard and I held him as tightly as I dared, my eyes closed and streaming tears. "Michael, I love you," I said, my voice so wobbly I'm amazed he understood me. "I can't wait to be with you again."

"I'll do all I possibly can to make that happen," he vowed, squeezing me. "I love you, Toni Karlsen. When you get home, start going on auditions. Get that career of yours going again, will you? And as soon as I can, I'll be there cheering you on." He pulled back, gave me one last kiss and winked at me. "We're gonna be dynamite together."

"I know we are," I agreed shakily, trying to smile.

He grinned, and for the first time I saw that his eyes were shining with tears as well. He gave me a pat on the behind and urged, "Go on, quick. And watch your mail."

We traded a last declaration of our love, and I finally got out of the car and trudged up to the front door, peering over my shoulder the whole way, while he backed the car out and let it coast along the street till I was on the front step. Then he waved, beeped the horn and drove away.

§ § §

Mother, Timothy and Jackie all immediately noticed that there was something new and different about me when I met them at the gate after deplaning. "Yeah, look how tan she is," Kristen said when they remarked on it, and she went so far as to pinch my arm. "You look like a gingerbread cookie."

I snorted at her. "I'm not that dark, you goof," I said and ruffled her hair; she ducked away from me, giggling.

"You're prettier, Toni," Louisa decided, staring up at me.

"How were Tom and Maureen?" Mother asked.

"Aunt Maureen was okay. Uncle Tom hardly spoke to me unless he had to," I said, shrugging. "I spent almost all my time with Kelley."

Mother and Timothy looked at each other, but it was Jackie who said it. "Seriously, Toni. All your time? With just Kelley?"

I heaved a sigh and gulped flat the lump that was trying to rise in my throat. "Okay, you got me. I met a boy there...and I fell in love. Really, honestly in love."

Again, Mother and Timothy looked at each other. I thought I saw skepticism on their faces, but then Timothy urged, "Well, tell us about him." I ended up spending the car ride home telling them about Michael and how we'd spent the summer, except that I left out the part about our being intimate. I knew Mother wouldn't be ready to hear that!

"That's pretty devoted," Timothy remarked eventually, "if hes planning to switch schools just to be near you."

"You're both so young," Mother fretted, finally satisfying my resigned expectation. "I think you'd better take it easy. Especially you, Toni, you're only eighteen."

I sat up. "Eighteen's legal, you know. I can vote, I can drink, and I'm considered an adult. If I were a guy, I could be drafted. And I can audition for any part I want, in anything I want—movies, TV, whatever. I can make my own decisions now."

Mother shot me a look in the rearview mirror, and Timothy cleared his throat. "We realize you're heady with the idea of being a full-fledged adult, Toni, but you have to remember a couple of things. Number one, you're still living under our roof and dependent on us for shelter, meals and transportation to those auditions you mentioned. And number two, you may be legally an adult, but that doesn't mean you automatically know everything there is to know about being one. I mean, hell...your mother and I are forty-odd years old ourselves, and we're still learning things about being adults. Everything changes—things, people...and at this age you're still flexible and still think you're indestructible. You'll change your mind and have a lot of conflicting ideas before you reach a point where you get what they call 'set in your ways'. I know it feels like you can have everything you want, and if you do it right, you probably can. But you have to give things time to work out, and you have to allow for unexpected bumps in the road. So don't expect your grand plans to come out all shiny and golden, exactly like you imagined them. Life will always find a way to throw something in front of you to trip you up." He went silent then, no doubt to allow his words time to burn themselves into my memory.

They did, but it took a while before I realized it. I insisted on checking the mailbox when we got home, but of course I didn't hear anything from Michael, though there was a letter from Julie in it—a long one, judging from the thickness of the envelope. That was a relief, because I just had to tell my best friend everything. I dragged my suitcase and my carry-on bag to my room, which seemed slightly strange to me now after being away from it for nearly three months, and bounced experimentally on the mattress of my bed before getting back to my feet and rummaging through the carry-on for the souvenirs I'd brought home for everybody.

I retreated to my room to unpack, find places for my own souvenirs, and change into summer pajamas; it was still early evening and we were getting ready to have supper, but I was tired from the long flight from Honolulu and from missing Michael. I was slitting open the envelope to Julie's letter when Jackie poked her head in the door. "Hey, Toni, mind if I come in a minute?"

I set Julie's letter aside. "What's up?"

She came in and sidled over to me, clearing her throat and coughing a few times till I gave her a look that told her I knew she was stalling. She grinned sheepishly and sat down on the bed beside me. "I, uh...well, I noticed that ring on your finger, and I know you didn't have that when you left here. So where'd you get it?"

I lifted my right hand and and studied the gold ring with the ruby. "Michael gave it to me on my birthday. It's a promise ring."

"What kind of promise did he make?" Jackie asked. "That's sort of weird—I never heard of a promise ring before."

I shrugged. Michael had never actually stated in so many words what promise the ring represented; but I suspected it was really meant to be a reminder of the promises he'd made me before he and his parents and brothers had to leave for Japan a couple of days ago: that we'd be together, that he'd find a school near me, that he'd encourage me in my nascent acting career...that he loved me. "I guess it was more than just one promise. Jackie...I'm really in love with him. It's no joke and it's no silly crush. I love him."

She looked at me uneasily, as if she no longer knew me. "I gotta tell you, Toni, it sounds so...I don't know, weird coming from you. I mean, I always heard that love makes you sort of crazy, and you were always so levelheaded and self-possessed." While I stared at her, she shifted on her rump and then blurted out, "I've wished I had some of that self-confidence of yours, ever since that day you taped Wendy Clarke's mouth shut in that stupid carpool back in Alabama."

I gaped at her, blinking like an idiot, and she chanced a look at me finally. Then we both started laughing. "Wow, I never knew that," I said, flattered that she'd told me. "I wish I could tell you how to fake it, but I'm not even sure myself. I just knew that there were some really dumb things that a lot of kids did in high school, and I didn't want to get mixed up in that junk, and I also wasn't going to let anybody else get me into trouble. That's really all there is to it." She threw me a skeptical look, and I grinned a little. "Well, maybe not quite. I think it helps if you have some kind of goal you plan on working toward. Like me with my acting. I just wanted to get out of school as soon as I could, so I could concentrate on my career. If you have a goal too, and you want to be absolutely sure to get it, then it'll be a big motivator for you. It was for me."

Jackie took that in and nodded slowly. "I get it. That really does help. Thanks, Toni." She started to get up, then paused. "I still think there's something different about you. Nothing I can really put my finger on, just...well, something. You just look..." She trailed off and finally shrugged.

"Well, I did turn 18 recently," I said lightly. "Maybe I seem more grown-up now."

Jackie greeted that with a long, loud raspberry, and we both laughed again. "Well, I'll let you read Julie's letter. Thanks for the advice." I smiled, and she left the room; I pulled Julie's letter from the envelope and sat reading avidly. To my astonishment, Julie wrote that she had been accepted to USC, and that we'd probably be able to see each other while she was in school here! She couldn't wait to get out here, and suddenly neither could I. I wanted her and Michael to meet each other and for all of us to hang out together. Maybe Julie would find some nice guy and get together with him, and we could all date together, and...

I snapped myself back to reality. We might be lucky if we could see each other on weekends; after all, I planned to be busy auditioning. But it would be great to have Julie not far away, even if she wasn't exactly across the street from me like she used to be. I tucked the letter away to reply to later and went out to the kitchen to see what was for supper.

§ § §

School had already started for Jackie and Kristen, so they were well into tenth and second grades, respectively, by the time I got back from Hawaii. The days became routine in no time at all: Timothy, who was working from home right now, was constantly on the phone with his bandmates in Team Suzette, working on new songs for an album, so he let me use his car to go to auditions. As a birthday present, he and Mother had subscribed me to Variety so that I could make note of all the auditions I wanted to hit, and had told Nicole Salter to start nosing around for possible parts for me as well. Mother went off to work at Nicole's office each day; shortly after I came back from Hawaii, I had a new professional headshot taken, which Mother took in to work to give to Nicole. Jackie and Kristen each caught a different bus to school, with Jackie leaving first and Kristen roughly fifteen minutes later. Louisa, not yet four, was constantly at loose ends with her mother and all three of her older sisters out of the house all day, and Timothy tended to report that she was often underfoot looking for attention. Finally, in mid-September, he prevailed on me to take her with me while I was running around reading for parts, so he could get some work done in peace. Louisa was so excited she couldn't sit still, which is unusual for her because she's generally a calm, quiet little girl who loves to read. In fact, she turned out to be a good-luck charm of sorts for me. I finally nailed a walk-on role with about half a dozen lines in a new TV series, and when the casting director got a look at her and found out she could read, he assigned her a three-line role for a small child in one scene. Louisa was thrilled, and I couldn't stop laughing.

When Mother and Timothy heard about it, they were shocked. "All she did was go with you, and she got a part?" Mother blurted. "Oh dear. Well, Toni, it's a good thing you're eighteen—you can act as Louisa's guardian for the day. There's no way I could take the time off right now. I'd better check with Nicole about any legalities."

"I brought Toni good luck," Louisa boasted proudly.

"Sure seems that way," Timothy said good-naturedly, patting her head. "Well, Toni'll help you learn your lines if you ask her nicely."

I was frankly glad I'd finally hit pay dirt, because I'd checked the mail every day without seeing so much as a greeting card from Michael. I was beginning to worry. After a week had gone by without word, I'd gone ahead and answered Julie's letter, telling her about him but not in too much detail, since I wanted to tell her more in person. She had written back saying she was looking forward to meeting him and couldn't wait to get together with me, and needed my phone number. I wrote back and gave it to her, and now I was waiting for both her letter and any word at all from Michael.

The day Louisa and I were supposed to shoot our scenes (hers was a different one from mine), I woke up feeling sick to my stomach. It wasn't the wishy-washy "blah" feeling that just makes you feel crummy; this was really urgent and my stomach was churning and making all kinds of nasty noises. On instinct I leaped out of bed and raced into the bathroom, where I was barely in time to lose last night's supper into the toilet. I retched so hard that I thought my skull would explode, and I had a horrible time catching my breath. By the time my stomach was satisfied and had settled into an irritable silence, my face was wet with reflexive tears and I was panting as if I'd just run the Boston Marathon.

I slowly straightened up, turned toward the sink and saw all three of my sisters crowded in the bathroom doorway, staring at me. "Woooooowww," seven-year-old Kristen breathed in awe.

"You okay, Toni?" Jackie asked.

"For the moment, I guess so," I croaked.

"You still gonna be able to go film your TV show?" Kristen wanted to know.

"Hope so," I mumbled, rinsing out my mouth with water and then swishing some mouthwash around to help remove the taste of vomit. "Yuck, this stuff's almost as bad as throwing up." My sisters laughed.

Just as I was settling into bed, Mother appeared in my doorway, dressed for work except for her shoes. "Jackie and Kristen told me you got sick," she said in concern. "How bad is it? Do you think you'll be able to film today?"

I rubbed my stomach gingerly. "Well, I hope so. At least I don't have to be here till ten—that'll give me some time to find out if I can go or not."

Mother nodded. "Well, I need to get to work. Take it easy if you can, Toni." She smiled and left. Jackie and Kristen caught their buses, and I sat in my room, keeping as still as I could for the sake of my stomach, reading over my script even though I'd long since memorized my lines and cues.

Louisa came in looking very worried. "Toni, did you get real bad sick?" she asked anxiously. "I don't wanna miss doing the TV show."

"I don't either, honey," I said and smiled, hoping I looked reassuring. My habitual use of the endearment for my youngest sister reminded me of Michael, and my stomach rolled again, but not in a nauseated way, to my relief. It was more that excited reaction I always had whenever I thought of getting his promised postcard. "We have a little while before it's time to go, so I might get better by then."

I did recover before we had to leave, and took Louisa to the studio for our scenes. It was a relief; it was the first money I'd earned from acting since eleventh grade. I still had a nice healthy amount in savings, but I'd been shocked at what had had to be taken out for taxes that spring. Timothy had generously paid my taxes for what I'd earned for my first TV work, that episode on "Love Boat", because that was the only money I earned that year; but after that, I was responsible for it. So it was lucky I wasn't a spendthrift. Mother and Timothy were also being generous in not charging me rent, but I still wanted to start making my own way if I could. That might not translate into getting my own apartment just yet, but I didn't want to be a moocher. After all the crowing I'd done about being an adult, I didn't want them coming at me with a bunch of bills I didn't have the ability to pay!

I earned the regular speaking-role rate for my work, and Louisa got a little less than four hundred for her efforts. Of course, to her that was a massive fortune, and she wanted to buy all her favorite books and get herself a bike with training wheels while she was at it. Instead, Mother and Timothy used it to start a college fund for her, which I thought made a lot of sense, because Louisa's a bright kid with a great mind. College will probably be a real cinch for her someday.

But almost every day I found myself throwing up in the morning and then feeling just fine after a couple of hours. After four days Mother was convinced I had some kind of bug, and overrode my protests by calling in to work and then taking me to the doctor. Now that I was eighteen, I had outgrown the pediatrician who still treated my sisters, so Mother took me to her own doctor, Kate Garner. The whole way there I found myself thinking about how I still hadn't had any word from Michael even though September was now almost over. What was going on?

"I hear you just spent the summer in Hawaii," Dr. Garner remarked as a get-to-know-you opening when Mother and I were sent back to see her. I nodded, just as my stomach—having so forcefully emptied itself less than an hour ago—had the gall to growl at me. We all laughed, and she asked, "Didn't you have breakfast?"

I smiled sheepishly back. "I would have if I hadn't been throwing up."

That made her laugh again. "So how long have you been feeling like this?"

"A few days," Mother answered for me. "She gets up and throws up first thing, and feels bad for a while, and then after a couple of hours, she's fine."

Dr. Garner nodded, asking several more questions while preparing a small needle, with which she proceeded to jab me in the end of one finger. I winced and grunted, and she cast me a quick, apologetic smile. "I hate those too," she said sympathetically, "but they're necessary. If you would, can you produce a urine sample for me, Toni?"

I agreed with relief; Mother had refused to let me go before we left and my bladder had been about to burst for the last ten minutes. Shortly I gave Dr. Garner a full sample cup, and she left the exam room for what felt like half the day. Mother was quiet for a little bit; then she cleared her throat. "Have you heard from that boy yet, Toni?"

I gave her a startled look. "No, I'm still waiting," I admitted reluctantly. She nodded, but didn't say anything else; I didn't know whether to be grateful or not. I'd been half expecting a parental lecture on getting too emotionally serious too soon.

It was probably less than ten minutes before Dr. Garner returned; there was a serious look on her face that made my stomach begin to somersault. I was sure she was about to tell me I had some terminal disease and should get my affairs in order because I was going to die before I got to my nineteenth birthday. "I have a question for you, Toni," Dr. Garner said, peering at me. "When did you have your last period?"

To tell the truth, that's the moment something started pounding on the back of my mind, but at that second I wasn't making the connections. "In July," I said. "I think it was a couple of weeks before my birthday."

"That long?" she asked, looking surprised.

"I have irregular periods," I explained and told her about the near-two-month gap I'd once had. "I can probably count on one hand the times I've had one each month." I took a breath, hesitated, then asked anyway. "How come?"

"Well," Dr. Garner said, glancing from me to Mother and then back again, "I've run some tests, and they show that you're pregnant."

She couldn't have stunned me any more than if she really had said I was dying. I grabbed the arms of the chair I was sitting in, as if to get a grip on the world that seemed to be spinning away from me. I might not die before my nineteenth birthday, but I'd be a mother before then. It was impossible for me to grasp. Kids were supposed to happen way down the line, maybe in another eight or ten years. Not now!

"Pregnant," Mother echoed, her voice sounding a little distant what with the rushing in my ears. I met her gaze, and it was like ice. "Toni, you never once let on that you'd been sleeping with that boy."

I couldn't say anything to that. She was right. Kelley had been right too, but her warning obviously had come too late. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out.

"So she knows who the father is, then?" Dr. Garner asked.

Mother nodded. "She met a boy in Hawaii, and clearly their relationship progressed to the point where they were having sex. Supposedly he told her he would contact her after she came home, but she still hasn't heard from him, and I have a feeling she won't." This statement made my eyes fill with tears and I hung my head so nobody would see them.

Dr. Garner and Mother went on talking low for a few minutes, but I didn't hear what they said. I was still too aghast at the news. What was I going to do with a baby? I knew how to take care of one, at least, after helping Mother with Kristen and even more so after Louisa was born. But I had visions of Mother and Timothy kicking me and the baby out of the house and breaking off all contact, forcing me to seek help from someone else. It was a little drastic, but at the time I was so upset I started panicking and envisioning the worst-case scenario. And I couldn't even turn to Michael, not when I was afraid Mother was right.

On the way home Mother let me stew quietly; I'm sure she figured I was my own worst enemy and at least let me punish myself without any embellishment from her. I was scared and worried, but by the time we got home I had made up my mind about one thing: it was Michael's baby, and therefore I was keeping it. My parents could throw me out if they wanted to, but I'd still have Michael's child. I started tentatively considering ways to tell him that he was going to be a father next year.

When we got home, Timothy met us at the doorway; he must have sensed something was afoot, for he asked without preamble, "What's up, Jen?"

"Toni's pregnant," Mother said point-blank. "She and that boy she met at Tom and Maureen's were much closer than she implied."

"Wow." The word exploded out of Timothy and echoed off the stairwell; he looked really shocked. "How far along is she?"

Mother sighed. "Dr. Garner judges maybe seven or eight weeks. My God, Tim, I don't know what in the world to do now. She was always so sensible, and then this..."

Timothy, to my amazement and relief, stuck up for me. "Jen, sweetheart," he said gently, "love changes a lot of things. I think the reason Toni had her wits about her up to now is that she'd never met a boy she felt that deeply for. But there are a couple of positive things here. First, she's finished high school and has her diploma; and second, she's got a bit of a name in showbiz, and if she keeps working hard, she should be able to bring in a steady income, even if it's a small one. There's no reason she can't keep auditioning and working right through her pregnancy. When she starts showing, they'll work around it or cast her as a pregnant woman. We'll talk later on about how we're all going to handle having a baby in the house, once everybody knows about it and Toni's made some decisions."

"I thought you were going to throw me out," I said, too astonished to censor myself.

He grinned. "Whaddaya think we are, monsters? So you lost your head over this guy and he got you pregnant. But you've already shown me that you're serious about building a career for yourself, and that's enough for me. Whatever you decide, we'll support you."

Louisa came up from the rumpus room as the mail truck stopped at our box outside. "Hi Mommy and Daddy," she said fearfully. "I hope Toni's not gonna die."

Timothy laughed, and even Mother cracked a sort of imitation smile. "No, she's not going to die," he said. "She's just going to have a baby."
Louisa's eyes popped, but the sound of the mail truck accelerating away caught her attention and she exclaimed, "I'll get the mail." She ran out, and I risked a look at Mother, who seemed almost more stunned overall than I felt. Spooked, I shifted my gaze to Timothy, and he winked at me.

"I'm glad you're here," I blurted. "My own father probably really would have kicked me out, and Mother looks as if she'd have seconded him."

Timothy rolled his eyes and grinned; at that point Louisa came back in, waving the mail. "We got lots of stuff," she said and handed me the top envelope. "That one's got your name on it, Toni."

I thanked her, still consumed with amazement at my stepfather. Timothy took the rest of the mail from Louisa, who went back to eyeing me. "Is that really right? Toni's got a baby in her tummy?" She patted my abdomen as if the baby inside could hear her.

Timothy nodded. "But she's a little bit young to have a baby, and the daddy isn't around to help, so we have to think about what's going to happen when the baby gets born. So when Jackie and Kristen come home from school, we'll all sit down and talk about it."

"I won't be the littlest one anymore," Louisa said, looking excited. "Toni, can I help you take care of the baby?"

"Sure, honey," I said, smoothing her hair. "When you were a baby, I helped take care of you, so it would be great if you can help me."

Timothy bundled Mother off to another room, presumably to talk in private, and Louisa followed me to my room, where I looked at the letter she'd given me. Then I gasped loudly. It had Japanese stamps and the name MATSUNAKI printed in the upper-left corner in sloppy capital letters. Louisa peered at me. "What is it?"

"It's from Michael!" I exclaimed, my heart doing triple overtime. I was desperate to read the letter, but I wanted to preserve the envelope too, just because he'd handled it. I found a letter opener at my desk and slit the top of the envelope, then wrestled out a single sheet of paper with shaking hands. It took me maybe two minutes to read what he'd written and to realize, through a hurricane of sobs, that my world had collapsed.