Lessons

WARNING: The subject matter of this story deals with serious teenage sexual issues.    If you are offended by such material, please do not continue to read. 

J.J. Hart rounded the bend to begin her fifth lap around the track. Her rhythm going, her stride felt long and strong. Counting in her head as she always did when running, she tuned out everything around her as she breezed past the others running on the track with her. Breathing evenly, she reveled in the precision movement of her body as it worked in tune with her mind. The sun shining, the air dry and cool, it was really turning into one good workout. Her hope was for a successful season for herself and the team.

Halfway through that fifth lap, a voice broke her concentration.

“Hey J.J.! Wait up!”

It was Phylicia Diaz aka Philly, her teammate and a good friend, so nicknamed for her long, thin racer’s legs. J.J. slowed to drop back and run abreast of her.

“You are one hard somebody to catch,” Philly puffed once the girls were abreast of each other. “I’m quick, but as much as it pains me to admit it, you are much quicker.”

“By design,” grinned J.J. “What’s up?”

“I’ve got something to tell you, and I’m only telling you for two reasons. One, because I know you can keep a secret. See, nobody knows about this outside of just a few of us. We know who we are, and we all talked about it and thought that we needed to let you in on it. Two, it involves Tommy. That’s the main reason that we thought that you should know.”

“You’re right,” J.J. answered, looking to Philly as they both slowed to an easier trot, ” because if it involves Tommy, then it involves me. I’d be real upset to find out down the line that you all left me on the outside of it. So go.”

 _______________________________________________

Jonathan Hart sat at his desk looking over legal documents for a merger in the works in D.C., the final details of which it looked as if he would have to fly out the next weekend to personally complete. He hated when his work spilled over into the end of the week and into his time with his wife and daughter, but it was panning out that he would have to take care of it personally. Maybe, he thought, J.J. would want to fly out with him on that Friday after school dismissal. He could pick her up, and they could keep going to the airport and be on their way. That would allow her mother some uninterrupted writing and relaxation time to herself for a couple of days, and would give J.J. some flight time toward her license requirements.

It floated into his head, as it always did when the subject arose, that Jennifer was going to have both their heads on a stick when she found out about J.J.’s flying. He began seriously  teaching her at twelve and now, at fifteen, she was quite good, impressive even.

He pushed the thought of his wife’s reaction to the back of his mind, which was where he tried to keep it most of the time, and jotted a note to himself to call and arrange for her to go to that spa she had been talking about. She could spend the weekend being pampered and doing what she wanted without worrying about having to get back home to the two of them. After he completed his business in the capitol, he and J.J. could go on to Maryland to visit with her grandfather, Stephen Edwards, and that racehorse of hers that Stephen boarded on his estate in Hillhaven. They would fly back in on Sunday night to have J.J. back in school the first thing on Monday morning, as Jennifer would insist upon her being.

His secretary’s voice from the intercomon unit on his desk cut into his thoughts.

“Mr. Hart, Mrs. Steele from Accounting is requesting to see you for a few minutes if you have the time,” his secretary’s voice sounded from the intercom unit on his desk. “She says it’s urgent.”

“Sure.”

He clicked off, straightened his tie, and stood behind the desk. Brenda Steele, a senior executive accountant for Hart Industries, was someone for whom he always had time. Her son, Tommy Steele, was a good friend of J.J.’s and a boy to whom he had taken a personal liking. His mother was raising him on her own, and she seemed to be doing an excellent job with him.

There was a knock and a petite blonde in a business suit entered the office. With a hand extended in greeting, he walked out to meet her. Then he escorted her to one of the chairs directly in front of his desk. Once she was seated, he took the other. Because he spent time with Tommy, they often talked together, but it was unusual her coming down and asking to speak with him during business hours. He thought he sensed an uneasiness in her and cut right to it.

“Is there something wrong?”

She spoke with her eyes downcast. “I hate to bother you with this, Mr. Hart. It’s a personal matter really, but you… I… I just don’t know who else I can turn to with this.”

Brenda had always been a professional on the job, cool and sort of detached, but efficient and businesslike in the completion of her duties. Known as ‘The Voice of Reason’ down in her division of Accounting, complex problems were usually directed to her for solutions she typically delivered, she now looked as if she wanted to cry.

Unnerved by that, he handed her a tissue from the box on his desk and sat forward in his chair. “What seems to be the problem?”

She dabbed at her eyes, wiped her nose, and sighed. “It’s Tommy.”

“Tommy? What about him?”

“I…. I got that call last night that every mother of a teenage boy hopes and prays she never gets.”

He leaned in further. “Call?”

She snatched another tissue from the box and dabbed one more time at her eyes. “The mother of a girl at his school called me at home. She says her daughter is pregnant, and the girl claims Tommy is the father.”

Jonathan sat back and exhaled. He rubbed at his brow. That was a call no mentor wanted to hear made about his almost-son.

“What has Tommy said about it?”

“I haven’t talked with him about it yet,” Brenda admitted. “Lately, he’s has been sticking pretty close to home. After that incident at the ball last June with Mrs. Hart getting hurt, the only girl he’s really spent any time with- that I’ve noticed- has been your J.J., and that’s mostly by phone. He goes to school, he goes to work, and he comes home. To be honest with you, I kind of get nervous about the two of them of them at times, being on the phone at all hours like they are, but then, they have always been such good friends.”

She stopped and dabbed at her pooling eyes. When she had it together, she continued to explain.

“Mr. Hart, Tommy is mine, and I admit bias when it comes to him, but he really is such a good boy. I would never have expected anything like this out of him. He’s getting older, and even I can see he’s nice looking, so I figured on the girls being attracted to him. I know all too well that he likes girls. I’ve talked with him about abstinence and about protecting himself should he decide to have sex. He told me you had talked with him about those things, too, and I’m grateful to you for that. To my knowledge, he hasn’t ever dated any one girl seriously.”

She blew her nose into the tissue. “He’s a such good boy, Mr. Hart. Always respectful. So helpful, responsible, and smart. You’ve helped see to that.” Then she dropped her head into her hands. “My God, he’s only sixteen.”

Jonathan wanted to console her, but found himself too hurt and confused himself to be of help to her at that moment. Tommy was all those things his mother mentioned, and as she said, far too young to compromise his future in this way. It couldn’t be happening this way.

“Brenda,” he said more calmly than he felt, “Let me get with Tommy and talk to him. I’ll be over to your house this evening, as soon as I leave here. Don’t say anything to him about my coming. I’ll get to the bottom of this, and then whatever the outcome, we’ll take it from there.”

Brenda Steele slowly rose from her chair. “Mr. Hart, I’ll have him there. And…and I can’t thank you enough for all that you do for Tommy, for all that you’ve done for both of us.”

She turned to face him and finally met his eyes with hers. “I cannot believe this boy has messed up his life like this.”

Jonathan rose also and took her hands in his. “Don’t condemn him yet. We don’t have all the facts. I believe in Tommy; I always have. Let me talk with him.”

He walked her to the door and saw her out.

Once she was gone, he went over to the couch and sank down on it, drained and angry at the same time. With all the the information kids got on protecting themselves, from school, in the media, and hopefully from home, how were these things still occurring with such regularity? And to such young kids, to such good kids…

As soon as he made it to that house that evening, Thomas Jordan Steele was going to get ripped a new one if he didn’t have a very good explanation…

J.J. smiled at him from the photograph on the coffee table in front of him. Her mother had taken the picture of her on horseback during a recent visit to the ranch. J.J. looked so much like her mother- increasingly so, and in more areas than just her face, a fact of life that didn’t help her father’s current situation at all.

He didn’t consider himself a particularly religious man, but he did know how to pray when the situation called for it, and this one did. He closed his eyes and sent up a small one for his own precious girl’s safe deliverance to womanhood without having to be faced with this kind of pitfall. Right behind that first prayer, he sent another of thanks for Jennifer who had been consistently instilling strong values in their child from the start, values which he was certain were being regularly called into play as she was growing older and becoming more mobile and so attractive. Over the years, he occasionally chided his wife for being so candid and straightforward with their daughter about the biology behind sex, love, and boys, but maybe Jennifer had the right track all along. Occasionally mischievous with a tendency to wander off and to push the envelope at times, J.J. had never been a problem for them when it came to the boys in her life.

 _______________________________________________

Forced to park farther up the street than usual, Jennifer Hart checked the rear view mirror as she sat waiting for her daughter to come out of the school building. Not too far from where she pulled in, two other girls stood talking. She recognized them as two of J.J.’s close friends, Charmaine and Philly. Remembering a call she needed to make, she reached for the handset in the console just as she overheard one of the girls said to the other, “They say Tommy was screwing her last year, but I didn’t know they were still getting together. And it wasn’t like they were a couple or anything when they did it.”

“Yeah,” the other girl said, “it seems strange we wouldn’t have heard anything about her still being with him. She tells about everybody else she’s sleeping with.”

“But J.J.-”

With a sidelong glance and a finger to her lips, the one girl cut the other off.

“Shhh! Wait. I think this is J.J’s mother’s car.”

She stepped back and peeked at the front plate. “Yep, ‘2 Harts’, and that is her mother. Let’s go down there.”

The two moved on, both looking inside the car and then waving as they walked away. Jennifer returned the wave and continued to pretend to be on the phone, turning in the other direction, like she had been until the mention of Tommy having sex with someone came from the first girl’s mouth.

Who in the world was Tommy having sex with? Obviously it was somebody who had been telling about everybody else with whom she had been.

“But J.J.-”

J.J. did what?

She thought she and J.J. had established an open line of communication in those kinds of personal matters. J.J. would surely have told her if she was having sex, wouldn’t she? Why wouldn’t J.J. tell her if she was having sex? What in the world was she using for birth control if she was having sex? Kate, their GYN, wouldn’t put her on the pill at fifteen without letting her mother know, would she?

Those girls couldn’t have been talking about her J.J. But then her J.J. and Tommy Steele had become very, very chummy lately. The school was pretty large. Could there be another J.J. and Tommy that those two could have been speaking of?

Not that much coincidence on the entire planet. I know one thing-

Little Miss Hart had some fast explaining to do when she brought her hips to that car.

J.J. finally came out of the building, walking with, of all people, Tommy Steele. She felt sure if she looked down to see for herself, she would witnessed her own heart thumping its way out her blouse. Instead, she kept her eyes on those two teenagers in her rearview mirror. They stopped at the end of the walkway.

Two very handsome children indeed.

J.J. grown tall, willowy, and a lot more feminine with all that auburn hair she still pulled up into a ponytail. Tommy, muscular and rugged-looking as opposed to the reed-like waif he had been a couple years back, he brought to mind an old friend, also named Tom, a  handsome TV actor who played a private investigator in a popular detective series no longer on the air. Dark features, hazel colored eyes, and those distinctive, deep dimples.

Both kids preferred jeans and boots, although J.J. leaned toward a more tailored look with hers these days. They both appeared athletic, two kids who spent most of their time outdoors, which was actually true of both of them- the athleticism and the love of outdoors.

J.J. and Tommy’s conversation appeared to be serious; before parting, they each squeezed hands for a lingering moment before parting. She had witnessed them complete that single simple, but somehow intimate gesture on a few recent occasions.

J.J. came to the car and slid in with a quietly delivered, “Hey.” She leaned over and delivered her customary kiss to the cheek, but said nothing else.

Jennifer understood the silence. It meant she was shut out for the time being. The girl was like her father in that; they both went into themselves when dealing with something they needed to work out, both of them reluctant to burden others with details. Jonathan had to practically be jackhammered to get him to open up about his problems, but his child ….

Justine Jennifer Hart would be allowed the quiet ride home, but before the evening was out, some little body was going to be telling her mother something.

 _______________________________________________

When the knock came to her door, J.J. was lying across her bed with Third curled up next to her as she read her assigned chapter for Art History class. She got up to answer it, and found her mother standing on the other side. She stood back and watched as ‘The Duchess’ entered, silently crossed the room, and took a seat in the chair by the window. It was when she gestured to the hassock that J.J. realized she was being paid a royal visit, and her mind immediately shifted into overdrive in the effort to figure out what she could have done.

With her schoolwork, and other activities, she really hadn’t had the time to be anything but on point when it came to behavior. In the tenth grade now, school wasn’t the piece of cake for her it had been in the past. Aside from the fresh harvest in the hip pocket of her jeans gathered from the lunchtime poker game, there wasn’t anything else she could think of that would merit her mother paying a call in her official capacity.

As she crossed the room to take her assigned seat, she noticed the dog peeking out at her from underneath the bed.

He must sense something is up.

Under normal circumstances, he would be over there with her trying to get into her mother’s lap.

“What is going on with you?” was the first question fired at her once she was seated and at attention.

Instantly confused, she answered, “I don’t know what you mean.”

“I mean why were you so quiet in the car coming home? Why didn’t you have anything to say at dinner tonight? It was just the two of us. You are never this quiet with me unless you’re in trouble.”

Relieved at not being called on the carpet for any specific transgression, J.J. exhaled. “I just have some things on my mind, that’s all. It’s not anything bad about me or anything like that.”

“Then what is it?”

Now that was unusual, her mother pressing her hard like that. Confrontational was not her style at all. Normally she waited to be invited into a discussion when she sensed trouble, unless she got it into her head it was something that couldn’t wait.

“It’s nothing, Mom. I can handle it.”

When her mother continued to watch her face, J.J. picked up on there was obviously a lot more to this, and she braced herself in anticipation of that other shoe falling.

It did.

“If you were having sex, J.J., would you tell me?”

The only think that kept J.J. from falling backward to the floor as if she had been shot in the chest was being straddled on the hassock with her feet firmly planted on either side of it, but mother’s expression said she was dead serious and in need of an answer.

Without giving her response a thought, the words spilled from J.J.’s mouth.

“Mom! I wouldn’t be screwing anybody unless I was on the pill, and I can’t get the pill from Doctor Kendall without your consent. So yeah, I would have to tell you, wouldn’t I? I’m not doing that free clinic thing people do when they don’t want their mothers to know their business. I need somebody to give me some kind of warranty on mine.”

The eyes did not let up. “So you’re not having sex?”

J.J. threw up her hands. “Of course not. I’m always here at home, somewhere with you or Daddy, or at school. When do I have time to have sex? Or a life, for that matter?”

It wasn’t the nature of the conversation that was a surprise; it was her mother thinking she would do that without talking to her first. “Can I ask what brought this on?”

When she could see her mothers relax and chuckle, J.J. relaxed as well, only then realizing of how shocked and terrified she had actually been at that quick inquisition.

“I’m sorry, Cherie. I just overhead a conversation outside your school today while I was waiting for you. Your name came up, and I guess I rushed to conclusions. I should have known better.”

J.J. had to smile; she loved her mother’s laugh. “Yes, you should have.”  She leaned forward to rest her elbows in her mother’s lap. “I’m not ready for any of that, Mom. You don’t have to worry about me along those lines yet.”

“But J.J, since I’m here, are you sure you don’t want to share with your worrywart mother what’s bothering you?”

Relieved, but amused at the same time at the revelation that there was something that could take her unflappable mother through changes; her daughter having unprotected sex, J.J. mentally filed the exchange under “Kodak Moment”. Considering the story she got from Philly earlier that day, she didn’t blame the Duchess for tripping, and found herself glad for staying in her own clothes.

“I promised certain people I wouldn’t say anything right now, Mom, but it is deep. As soon as I can, I’ll tell you about it. I will say  this to you, though: I just can’t believe the lengths some people will go to complicate their lives.”

Jennifer patted J.J.’s cheek and stood. “I’m sorry if I scared you; I just worry about you. Whatever the problem is, don’t let it get too heavy, okay?”

“I’ll try not to,” J.J. said, “but this one started out being not too light.”

_________________________________________________

Jonathan was late getting home, and Jennifer decided to wait downstairs for him. He had called earlier to say he had to make a stop on his way home, but he didn’t elaborate on what he had to do. She was on the couch in the great room when he came through the door.

“Good evening, darling,” she said to him as he set his briefcase on the floor and sat down next to her. She noticed the unusually tired, strained expression on his face as he loosened his tie, then removed his suit jacket, which he draped across the side chair. He kissed her and sat down, laying his head back on the cushions.

“Jonathan, is something wrong?”

“Have you talked to J.J. today?” he asked. “Stupid question. I know you did. She say anything about Tommy?”

“I talked to her, but not about Tommy. But, she did say she had something on her mind that she couldn’t talk to me about. She said she made a promise to “certain parties” that she wouldn’t talk about it. As usual, she said she thought she could handle it. Is something wrong with Tommy?”

“If it’s what it seems to be, no. All of his body parts are in proper working order. It’s his life that might be a mess.”

His eyes were closed, but she continued to study his face. “You’re talking in circles, Jonathan. What’s wrong with Tommy?”

“J.J. didn’t say anything to you?” he asked again.

“No. I told you, she said she couldn’t, and I didn’t press her. She shuts down when pushed, and at the moment, it didn’t seem pressing enough to set it up to have to pry it out of her.”

“Damn,” he whispered, slowly shaking his head, “she was going to be my next step. Some girl at their school says Tommy has gotten her pregnant. I went by the house to talk to him when I left work tonight, and he’s shut down too. He admitted to sleeping with her, but that was as far as he would go. I get the feeling there’s something more to the story, and that he’s not telling it all. I was hoping J.J. could shed some light on it, and I could try to start putting some of the pieces together. I need to make sense of some of this.”

“Poor Brenda. She’s worked so hard raising that boy by herself. He is her pride and joy. She’s got to be a mess behind this.”

“She is. But I get the feeling it’s not his baby, Jennifer.”

“Then why wouldn’t he come out and say so if it isn’t? Why would he take the blame if he feels he didn’t do it? And if he admits to sleeping with her, how can you be so sure it isn’t his baby? You’re very close to this, Jonathan. Don’t take sides because he’s your boy. Maybe you just don’t want to believe it.”

At that point, he opened his eyes and sat up to look into hers. She could clearly see his hurt and concern.

“Jennifer, I’ve known that kid since he was eleven years old, and he’s been in my hip pocket for all that time. I‘ve talked to him over and over about girls and about being responsible. I just can’t believe he would slip up like that.”

She understood his pain for the boy was genuine. In the years Tommy had been in their lives and in and out of their home, Jonathan had grown very attached to him, and in turn Tommy adored Jonathan. They shared a strong bond, and although she remained largely out of that picture, she enjoyed watching their interactions. She was fond of Tommy, but that was their world. Hers held one child, Justine Hart, and that one took up all her focus.

When he lowered his head and rubbed at his forehead, she reached out for him, resting a hand on his shoulder.

“Jonathan, these are children doing grown-up things. We live in a rough world for kids to be trying to grow up in. They see sexual images everywhere. They’re being told to do it in the music they listen to, the television programs they watch; the temptation is everywhere, and kids this age are impulsive. They’re doing adult things, but their brains are not functioning like adult brains. They do what the moment calls for whether the time is right or not, and yes, sometimes that gets even the best kids in trouble.”

He took the hand from his shoulder to hold it in his. “So where’s my kid?”

“Upstairs with her homework. Now that you’ve told me this, I’m thinking it’s probably what she couldn’t tell me about. When I picked her up from school today, right before she came to the car, I saw her talking with Tommy.”

He squeezed her hand, rubbing his thumb across the back of it.

“Jennifer, I know I’ve given you a hard way to go at times about J.J. and your talks with her. Baby, look, I take it all back. Keep talking. This thing with Tommy is getting me. I don’t know if I could take it if the girl in this situation with Tommy was J.J. As close as the two of them are, it hasnt escaped my attention it could very well be.”

Her heart went out to him. The subject of J.J. Hart growing up and becoming a young woman wasn’t an easy one for her father to face. He was trying, but this very adult situation with Tommy had to be a major setback in any progress he felt he had made with his own child.

“Jonathan, you can’t worry yourself like that about J.J. She will have sex when she’s ready, and not a minute before. She has her own mind, and she says that she’s no where near ready for that. But you have to accept that when she does decide to do it, there won’t be anything that you or I will be able to do to about it. The comfort I take is that I have tried to do all I can to let her know her options and how to take care of herself.”

“Do you think if I went up there and asked her about Tommy, she would say anything to me about it?” he asked.

“Not if she promised Tommy Steele she wouldn’t.”

He pushed himself up and then held his hand out to her. “Well, I think we’re going to have to go up and convince our daughter that there are times some promises might need to be broken.”

Jennifer followed not saying anything, but hoping Jonathan wouldn’t get up there and turn the Hart obstinacy into a full-fledged hostile stand-off. J.J. Hart was genetically stubborn, the trait inherited from both parents.

_________________________________________________

“Daddy, I am not going to tell you what he told me; I don’t care how many times you ask me. He trusts me to keep it to myself for now.”

J.J. sat cross-legged in the middle of her bed as her parents sat on either side. She held her hands in her lap and stared down at them as she spoke. Jennifer sensed her daughter’s nervousness, but also clearly heard how resolute she was in her decision.

She also picked up on Jonathan’s mounting frustration with his child.

Undeterred, J.J. shook her head. “I’m sorry. I really am, but I just can’t discuss it with you two right now.”

Jonathan got up from the bed and paced the length of the bedroom with his hands in his pockets before turning back to face the brick wall of a girl on the bed.

“J.J., Tommy’s reputation is on the line. A good name takes a lifetime to achieve, and just a moment to lose. Let me ask you something. Do you think  he could be the father of this baby? Tests can determine that, even though that would be way down the line. What’s the problem with just giving me your opinion of the situation now?”

Silent for a moment, wringing her fingers as if considering what was said, J.J. finally looked up- first to her mother before turning back to her father.

“Daddy, if I say anything, no matter how much I much whittle it down, one of you will read into it. You’re both smart like that, so I’m leaving it alone. I told Tommy I wouldn’t discuss it, and I won’t, not even with you and my mother. A promise is a promise.”

Jennifer leaned in, putting an arm around J.J.’s shoulders. “Sweetheart, some promises aren’t healthy to keep.”

J.J. looked into her eyes with that crystal blue directness inherited from her father. “But they’re still promises, Mom.”

The seriousness behind the stare she got from J.J. had her backing away from J.J. and looking up to Jonathan.

He remained standing at the foot of the bed, the red  moving from his neck into his face as he ran a tense hand through his hair. Jennifer got up from the bed and went to him.

“Don’t,” she whispered to him just as it seemed he was about to explode. “She’ll back up even more. Come on.” She tugged gently at his arm to move him.

As if accepting she was right, that he realized he would get nowhere at all with J.J. if he lost his temper, he started toward the door with her, but stopped in the doorway and turned to J.J. still seated on the bed, her head down again, her restless hands still in her lap.

“I hope you and Tommy know what you’re doing,” he said. “I’m willing to help, but I can’t do anything if I don’t have anything to go on.”

“I know it, Daddy. But I- I just can’t say more right now.”

_________________________________________________

J.J. crept out of her room into the dark hallway. She took the rear loft stairs down to the first floor, tiptoed through the great room and the foyer to the front door, glad she left her skates on the bench outside. That cubby door under the front stairs, where she usually kept them, had a bad squeak which surely would have wakened one of them in that master bedroom or Marie in the rooms off the kitchen.

After fixing the lock so she could get back in, she eased the front door open and then closed it just as gently behind her. It took  a couple seconds to strap the skates on and to stick the gate remote down into one of her socks before pushing off, gliding silent and swift for the front gate, holding the tail of her long white nightgown in her hand.

_________________________________________________

Jennifer watched from her window as the lithe figure in white floated down the driveway into the night. She had still been lying awake on Jonathan’s chest when the indicator on the phone console flared, indicating use on J.J.’s line. Following a vague hunch, she gingerly extricated herself from Jonathan’s arms and went to the bedroom door, cracking it open just enough to see J.J. slip out of her room headed to the back hall. She heard her stealthy descent on the back stairs.

Moving through the dark first floor like a cat, J.J. had not looked up to see her as she stood at the second floor railing looking down on her, watching her leave.

Back in the bedroom, snatching a glance from the window over to the the glowing red digital numbers on Jonathan’s alarm clock, she calculated the amount of time it should take for her daughter to get down to that gate, meet her guest, and make it back to this end of the estate. That electronic wizard had to have disarmed the motion detectors on the alarm system before leaving out because the door hadn’t chimed when she opened it. Jonathan shared entirely too much with her. J.J. took what he showed her electronically and ran wild with it.

A minute longer than it should take, and she would be getting into the car and going down there herself. She prayed Jonathan remained asleep, softly snoring over there long enough for that little imp to make it back in time.

When he rolled over, her heart pushed up into her throat, but he did not wake. Fortunately, he had rolled over to the other side rather than hers where he surely would have come to upon realizing she was no longer in bed with him.

“I am going to wring her neck,” she silently vowed as she turned back to the window.

Shortly, the white nightgown and another larger, darker figure could be seen striding hand in hand back toward the house. They veered off the main driveway and headed toward the guest house.

Once again, her heart sped up. Placing a hand protectively to her chest, she thought, “I’m going to have a massive coronary right here, right now. This girl going to kill me before I can even get half the opportunity to kill her.”

But then the lone figure in white appeared again, this time running like lightning back toward the main house.

Jennifer tiptoed across the floor, left her room, and crossed the hall to slip into J.J.’s dark bedroom.

 _________________________________________________

J.J. slowly retraced her movements through the great room, up the same stairs to the second floor, and around from the loft into the second floor hall. She tip-toed to her room. Slowly opening the door, she peered over to the other side of the hall to her parents’ closed bedroom doors and smiled with relief. Pushing up her door behind her, she leaned into it with her back, trying to catch her breath. When it came more like normal, she slid into the bed and pulled up the covers. As she settled in, she realized something heavy was on top of the comforter keeping her from scrunching it up around her body the way she liked it. About that same time she recognized a faint, but intimately familiar expensive floral scent on the air.

With “I am so freaking dead,” playing through her mind, she reached behind her for the lamp cord.

The soft light illuminated the room. Slowly turning back to her original position, she came face to face with her mother, lying propped on one elbow on the other side of the bed.

Busted, J.J. pressed her face into her the pillows.

_________________________________________________

After allowing her to stew a couple moments, Jennifer tapped J.J.’s back. “You might want to begin explaining right about now. Start with who’s in the guest house.”

“Can I go and pee first?”

“Be my guest.” Jennifer allowed, that one eyebrow raised. “I’ll wait.”

J.J. returned from the bathroom and got back into the bed to face her mother who was still lying there, still in the same position.

“It’s Tommy,” J.J. began. “His mother let him go to Deon’s to pick up something, and she told him to be back by a certain time. He missed his curfew. Mrs. Steele is so mad at him about everything that she wouldn’t let him back in the house because of it. I guess she thought he was out there with some girl again. He didn’t have anywhere else to go, so he was going to just sleep on their front porch, but it gets cold at night. I told him to come here, and I would put him up in the guest house.”

“Why didn’t you just come and  tell us that?”

J.J. raised her lowered head to look at her mother. “He didn’t want to come at first. He called me, but he just called to talk. He told me what happened with his mother, and that’s when I told him to come here. He was scared that you would find out and be mad. He’s scared of you.”

“As he should be at this time of the night.”

“I talked him into coming here; he didn’t ask to come. I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to wake you guys up, and….and I was afraid that you would say ‘no’ too, in light of everything else. If I didn’t ask you, you couldn’t say ‘no’. Tommy needed somebody and somewhere to go, Mom.”

“Where is the motorcycle?”

“We left it down by the other side of the bridge so the motor wouldn’t wake you and Daddy up. Although, I can see now that it didn’t work- not in your case anyway.”

From her position over her, Jennifer could see down the front of J.J.’s nightgown. The sight was distracting. She reached out and pulled up on the lacy bodice.

“Why were you out there in your nightgown? Why didn’t you at least put your robe on- not that that’s an issue- you shouldn’t have been out there, period. But you don’t go around boys in your nightgown, J.J.”

“That terry cloth robe would have messed with my aerodynamics and slowed me down. Besides, it was just Tommy, Mom.”

“He’s still a boy, J.J.”

“Not that kind of a boy. We’re just friends.”

Jennifer sutdied the girl now looking at her with slightly confused eyes. It was unbelievable; the child was such an innocent. “You don’t have a clue, do you?”

“About what? It was just Tommy.”

“About you.”

She yanked the covers from J.J.’s body, and gestured toward her entire length with her free hand. “And all of this. J.J., you cannot be doing the things you do around boys with that face and that body. You’re not a baby any more. Tommy doesn’t see you like he did when you were ten. J.J., at twelve he was kissing you!”  Jennifer dropped her head in frustration. “What the hell am I going to do with you?”

“Love me?” J.J. suggested. Then she meekly asked, “Are you going to punish me?”

Jennifer got up from the bed. As technically savvy as J.J. was, at fifteen she had yet to develop awareness of or concern about  her sexual impact on the boys. In J.J.’s opinion, their carnal impulses were their problem, and she had nothing to do with setting them off. As far as she was concerned, if she wasn’t intentionally sending out signals, there was nothing to be read by the opposite sex into anything she did. For Jennifer, it unnerved her that her daughter was so uninhibited when it came to her body.

And she had such a good heart. It was their great good fortune as parents that the girl was nobody’s dope.

Jennifer  moved around the bed, headed for the door where she stopped before opening it to leave. She pointed a finger at J.J. over in the bed and in a hushed voice, delivered her final instructions. “Set that clock, and get up early. Call out there, do not go out there, and have him out of that guesthouse before your father leaves for work. If you two get caught by Jonathan Hart, I will have no knowledge of any of this. In fact, I won’t even know either of you.”

J.J. grinned. “You are the best, Mom.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Jennifer said waving her hand as she opened the door to leave. “You heard what I said.”

J.J. set the clock as instructed, and turned off the light.

Before drifting off, she calculated at least three years lost off her life in those last thirty minutes of fooling around trying to save Tommy’s skin. She drifted off with thoughts ofing of how much she loved her fascinating and sometimes frightening mother- the mother she could never determine what direction she might come from in an iffy situation. This one had been no exception.

 _________________________________________________

Part Two

Marnie Benson stretched on tiptoe to blindly feel through the things on the top shelf of her cluttered locker in search of her history notebook. The bell rang, and she cursed it. She was was already working on a two-day detention repeated tardiness to her classes. Cursing further about not being able to feel all the way to the back of the shelf, she was startled but not stopped by a tap on the shoulder from behind.

“Just a second, she said without looking back. “I gotta find this damned book. The word is that bitch, Ms. Calvin,  is doing a notebook check in history today, and she is not giving me a zero. That fat cow doesn’t like me, and she’s looking for a reason. I did my work and it’s in here somewhere. I just gotta find it. Hold on.”

She was tapped again.

“What, dammit?”

Annoyed, she started to look back, but her eyes first went to the floor where she spotted the narrow, olive green Prada pump slightly behind her red Nine West mule. There was only one foot like that one in the pump.

Her shoulders slumped and her body melted into the locker. Boxed in, left without any chance whatsoever to run away or retract what she said, she slowly turned around to greet her tapper.

“Oh, h-h-hey, Mrs. Hart,” she said, afraid to look the woman in the face. “Look, I am so sorry about that. I didn’t know it was you.”

“That much was apparent, Marnie Elaine. You have always had a mouth like a loading dock foreman. Where is J.J.?”

“The bell just rang. She should be in class.”

When the woman leaned in and planted one hand against the locker just above her left shoulder and put the other one on her hip, essentially pinning her in place and putting them face to face against the open door, Marnie froze. Much shorter than her friend’s mother, she became a newbie hemmed up in the girls’ restroom by a second semester Senior on Freshman Friday.

“Don’t play with me, Marnie; I know where she should be. Her counselor called and tipped me off about her skipping.  I am quite aware of her schedule, not to mention yours. I’ve already been to the classroom, and she’s not there. I’ve done my research; she’s missed her first class and now her second. I’m asking you again, where is she?”

J.J. was on her own. The Duchess was serious; her  eyes had gone that weird grayish color, which meant the Good Ship Justine was sinking fast. Hating to do so, but considering her own immediate need for self-preservation, Marnie ratted her girl out.

“She must still be across the street at the coffee house with Tommy. They said they earlier that they had to talk.” But she couldn’t leave J.J. completely hanging. “Mrs. H., J. never skips class. Tommy was having some kind of a problem, and she just went to help him out with it.”

Mrs. Hart narrow-eyed her a couple uncomfortable seconds longer before pushing off the locker to stand upright again. “Your buddy needs to help herself out at this point. You hurry up and get yourself to class.”

When it looked as if Mrs. Hart was about to walk off, with a quick glance over her shoulder, Marnie turned back to the locker and slowly reached up to the front corner of the top shelf. Just as her fingers curled around the item she sought, another hand closed over hers.

“You don’t want to do that,” a voice said from too close behind her.

Marnie didn’t dare turn around. The hand locked around hers. “But I’m going to get a zero if I don’t have my notebook, Mrs. H.”

“Since when did you start taking notes on your phone? Getting that zero will be a far more pleasant experience than the one you’ll have if I find out you contacted your friend to let her know her mother is looking for her. Let the phone go, sweetie, and take yourself to class.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Marnie closed the locker door, stepped around the woman, and shot down the hall, praying all the while for her soon-to-be dearly departed best friend, J.J. Hart and her boy, Tommy Steele.

_________________________________________________

“Why didn’t you just tell your mother and my father what happened when you had the chance?” J.J. asked the young man seated across from her in a back booth of the coffee shop. Daddy said he wants to help, but he can’t if you won’t talk to him.”

With his back resting against the wall, one booted foot on the seat cushion, his chin resting on his knee, Tommy threw up his hand. “I wanted to tell your Dad everything last night, and I almost did. He scared the crap out of me showing up at the house like that. I was so- so- so through at that point, I just locked up. I didn’t know what to do or say.”

J.J. sighed. “Yeah, well, I guess I do know something about that. How do you think I felt when I got back to my room after I let you in the guesthouse? I sneak back in the house and up the stairs thinking I made out like a bandit only to find my mother next to me in my bed when I got back in it.”

Tommy smiled, that image momentarily lifting him out of his funk. “I wish I coulda been there and seen that. Talk about your Kodak moment. We coulda made some money sending that one in to that  funniest videos TV show.”

“That was not funny, Tommy. My bladder is weak from fooling with my mother all these years. Getting back to the point we were discussing, though, if you-”

“I will, J., but-”

J.J.’s mother looming over them at boothside startled them both into abrupt silence.

“Go to school, Tommy,” she said.

Without a word, he slid from the booth, pulled his backpack to him from the bench, and headed for the door.

“How much is the bill?” she said to J.J.

“A- a- about six dollars, but she hasn’t brought it yet.”

Jennifer left her to go back to the counter to confront the the young cashier. “Who’s the manager here?”

“He’s not in yet, ma’am.”

Jennifer slid her business card across the counter along with a ten dollar bill. “The money is to cover the bill for that back booth.”

“It’s only five-fifty, ma’am.”

“Give the change to charity. And tell the manager to call me at that number ASAP. Make sure to say that I need to get a call before I have to call back here. I want someone to tell me why kids are allowed to be here during the day when it’s obvious they should be across the street in school.”

When she turned back to face the booth, two panicked blue eyes peered over the  back of the seat. She crooked her finger at them and mouthed through gritted teeth, “Right Now.”

_________________________________________________

“Mom.”

“Hush.”

They weren’t going home. That was all J.J. could tell as her mother drove away from the school in stony silence.

“Mom, please listen.”

“Hush, I said.”

They drove a while longer, and J.J. concluded they weren’t headed home, they were going downtown, which most likely meant the Jonathan Hart Towers and her father’s office was their destination. And it wouldn’t be long before they got there.

“Mom, wait. Please. I’ll tell you, but I can’t tell Daddy.”

Jennifer didn’t take her eyes off the road or her foot from the accelerator to reproach her child. “Oh, so now you want to enter into negotiations? Now that your life is passing before your eyes, and the white is light beckoning, you want to cooperate?”

“I know I’m up the creek with no paddle, Mom, but I couldn’t talk to Daddy about this. Please don’t take me to him. I’ll talk to you. I promise”

They turned onto LaVista and pulled into the commercial space in the front of the Towers rather than heading into the parking structure. Jennifer  put the car in park and turned to J.J. whose whole being seemed to be pleading with her to listen.

“Talk,” she demanded of the girl. “Talk fast. Tell me why I shouldn’t just deliver you and your AWOL fanny up to that top floor and leave you with your close-to-the-edge father. You, Justine Jennifer Hart, are going to let Thomas Jordan Steele get you killed.”

“Tommy is only covering for Milini. He’s only trying to help her.”

“Why?”

“Because I think she got raped by somebody.”

Jennifer shifted the car back into drive and headed for home.

_________________________________________________

“Do you remember that day I had the early dismissal and you forgot to come for me?”

They were once again in J.J.’s room, Jennifer in the chair and J.J. on the hassock in front of her.

“Yes. I remember. That was the day that instead of calling to remind me to come for you, you and Tommy chose to hang out all over town together while the other kids went up to the Landers’ house in the hills to party until the police put an end to it.”

J.J. nodded. “Um-hm, that day. Well, while they were up there, Milini left with another boy who she really didn’t know. He was some older boy, and he doesn’t go to our school. She had met him at the mall a couple of days before that, and she called up him before they left school to tell him where everybody was going to be.

“He came to the house and met her there, and they took off together. This was before all the trouble with the police breaking up the party. Charmaine said Milini came back a while later, and when she did, her clothes and hair were messed up, like she had been fighting or something. She was all upset and stuff. By that time, everybody was mostly in the back at the pool, but Charmaine, Philly, Britt, and Kendra were in the house getting up food for everybody and listening to CD’s. Mil came in through the front and went right into the hall bathroom. She wouldn’t tell them what happened to her.”

Wringing her hands, J.J.’s voice dropped to a whisper. “They say she was all bloody.”

Jennifer sat forward. “Bloody? Bloody where?”

J.J. pointed to her crotch. “Down there.

“Philly and Kendra said they didn’t go in the bathroom with Brittany and Charmaine to help her, so they didn’t actually see it. They just stood outside the bathroom door to keep watch. They said Philly went and got Tiff since she’s Britt’s big sister. She figured they both needed to be on the same page to keep the story straight. Tiff went in the bathroom, too, and the three of them helped Mil get cleaned up. The others say they saw-  they saw there was blood in her underwear and on the towels when the girls brought them out. They washed and dried Mil’s clothes and the towels while she stayed in Brittany’s room crying.”

“Nobody called the police?”

“No, Mom. Remember, Mil wouldn’t say what actually happened, and they were all at a skip, well-unauthorized half-day party, so how could the police get called to come there for that?

“And they said when Charmaine did bring up doing that, Mil didn’t want her to. So Charmaine and Philly kind of kept watch on the stairs to keep anyone else from going up and finding out something was wrong. Since then, the girls have kept it all real quiet, so not that many people know anything actually went down. It’s so on the low Marnie was up there at the party, and as nosy as she is, she doesn’t even know about it because she was out back at the pool.

“That happened to Mil back before school was out for the summer, but I only found out about it yesterday myself because Philly told me when we were at track practice yesterday. She only told me because she wanted me to know that Milini was involving Tommy. It’s been a big old secret up until now because people were hoping it would just go away, but now it turns out she’s pregnant.”

J.J. watched as her mother sank slowly back into the chair and closed her eyes. Unable to read anything into that, she sat there until her mother’s eyes opened again and she extended the open palms of her hands to her.

“Come here,” she said.

J.J. leaned forward and was relieved when her mother placed her hands on both sides of her face and kissed her forehead.

As for Jennifer, the story J.J. told was a mother’s worst nightmare. Hearing it, she had to stop and give thanks it wasn’t her nightmare.

She hadn’t been so happy when it happened, but after hearing what could have been, she was so glad J.J. had opted out of that trip to the hills and spent her unauthorized free day in the manner that she did: an early lunch and a movie with Tommy and then reading aloud to him on the school lawn while he sketched her picture. Once Tommy left her to go to work, J.J. remained in that area until her father came to pick her up at the usual time. Jonathan had been completely unaware that his daughter had been on an unauthorized ‘out and about’ all day; he rarely took a thing beyond what J.J. told him, which had been the case when he arrived to the school to find her sitting there on the wall all alone. She told him school had gotten out early and once she realized she had been forgotten, she decided to just wait around until the regular time to keep from inconveniencing them. He didn’t ask for any details of how she spent her time and, of course, she didn’t provide any.

Exhaling, she released J.J.’s face, sat back, and folded her arms to ask, “So, if Tommy was with you on that day, how does he fit into this picture with Milini?”

“Well, according to Philly, Milini is claiming to be about two or three months pregnant, which would just about coincide with the time all of that happened on the skip party day. But Tommy had sex with her somewhere around that time too, but maybe a month or so earlier. I got all over him about it when I found out. She brags about all the guys she’s been with, and I was worried about Tommy catching something or getting her pregnant. See, I got it out of him that he didn’t use a condom with her. He said he assumed since she was having sex all over the place, she was on the pill. I fussed at him about that, too- getting with somebody who was getting with everybody. We’ve talked some more about it since then, and he told me he hasn’t had sex with anybody since the day he and I talked out on our tennis court about him being with Milini. I believe him when he said he hasn’t done it with anybody else.”

Jennifer leaned forward again. “So you’re telling me that you give Tommy advice on his sex life. You’re telling me he has a sex life?”

“He’s sixteen-year-old boy, Mom,” J.J. said, holding up her hands for emphasis, “It might be odder if he didn’t. And yes, he and I talk about everything. We’re friends.”

Jennifer dropped back into the chair again, this time in disbelief. “J.J., I think I might have been too old when I had you. Things between the sexes have changed way too much.”

“No you weren’t. You were just right when you had me. You always tell me things happen when they’re supposed to happen, to whom they’re supposed to happen, and in the way they’re supposed to happen. Nobody else could be J.J. Hart’s mother; you and I both know that. It was your destiny and mine that it worked out this way.”

Caught off guard at that truism, Jennifer smiled. In her place, a lesser woman certainly would not have lasted as long with that freckled face in front of her.

“So, tell me this, J.J. If things went the way you say, why is Tommy so quick and eager to take the blame?”

“I’m not sure. I was about to get there when you showed up at the coffee house. But from what I’ve gathered so far, Milini doesn’t even know the guy’s real name that she went off with in the car. He had some kind of nickname. She doesn’t know where he lives, how old he is, nothing. Mom, she is such a tramp. She has this book that she rates the guys that she sleeps with. She lists the boy’s name and then she puts stars next to their names; something like 4 stars for the bomb, you know, like excellent, 3 for good or satisfying, 2 for-”

Jennifer held up her hand to stop her. “Okay, okay I get it. Go on.”   She didn’t want to know the names or descriptions for the last two ratings.

“Tommy did tell me he felt bad for her because he contributed to her getting the bad reputation she has by sleeping with her for fun like he did. I told him that according to her, he wasn’t the only one, and she made the choice to do it with him. He doesn’t think he’s the father, but he can’t be sure that he isn’t, and she’s afraid that her father is going to kill her. She came to Tommy and asked him to just cover for her for the time being. There’s something more to it, but you came in the coffee shop before he could tell me.

“Milini’s father is Joel Scott of Scott and Hammonds Commercial Realty. You’ve probably heard of him or seen his advertisements in the trade magazines. He’s always trying to push his weight around up at the school. When Milini didn’t make head cheerleader that time, he was all over the sponsors and the coaches like his making noise was going to make a difference. Whenever he comes to the school for something, he’s usually performing like that. Mil gets embarrassed by it a lot.”

“I’ve met him.” Jennifer said. In her mind, she pictured the man at that parent-teacher’s conference where he loudly berated one of the teachers to the other parents because of his daughter’s geography grade.

J.J. continued. “This is speculation on my part, but I think Mil didn’t want anybody to know that she doesn’t even know the guy. I hate that Tommy agreed to help her, but that’s what he did. I think she’s just using him because he’s so nice. She’s always wanted him to be her boyfriend, and he just happens to a jock, and he’s nice looking to boot. To take it a bit further, and this is just me, but I also think she asked him because he doesn’t have a father to go up against her father.”

“But J.J., her parents really think he’s the father. Tommy’s mother is all upset. Your father is sick about it.”

“I told Tommy all of that. I think he realizes the repercussions now. But, he’s a just guy, Mom. He wasn’t thinking about all of that at the time. He was just trying to help Milini out of a bad jam that she got herself into. He’s always nice like that to people.”

“J.J., baby, if he was having unprotected sex with her, he could be the father.”

At that, J.J. placed her arms on top of her mother’s knees and leaned in.

“I understand that. But just the same, Mom, she was around the school boasting about all the sex she was having with all these different guys. On top of that she’s started on me because she thinks Tommy likes me. I happen to know she really likes Tommy, and she wanted him for herself. I bet she thought if she gave it up to him, he would be her boyfriend, but it didn’t happen like that. He just got it and kept going. Now look at the mess she’s in.

“Tommy told me he’s given up sex for awhile. He said he needed to concentrate more on school and work. He told me he didn’t want a reputation for being a hound, and then when he met someone he really liked and that he really wanted to be with, she wouldn’t want him because of his bad name.”

Despite the odd eye her mother seemed to be giving her, J.J. pressed on, figuring she better get it all out while the door was open to do so.

“The very next day after the incident with Milini, and with everybody getting hauled down to the police station, Milini and I got into it in the locker room because I overheard her accuse me of going off with Tommy to give him blow jobs while they were all partying and getting arrested. I didn’t call her the slut that I wanted to call her, but I do happen to know a couple of the boys that she gave blow jobs to under the bleachers on the field; I saw her do one of them. I also hear that she even did one guy on the last seat of the school bus on the way home one day- with people watching her and stuff. Now how low is that?

“Instead of slugging her like I wanted to, I just told her I had more to offer in mind and in body than her, but I didn’t have to give Tommy or any boy anything to keep their attention. I tried to be a lady about it, but then she swung on me. I ducked and she missed me. I really did want to slug her one so badly at that point, but I didn’t. Her towel fell off and her boobs made me laugh. Mom, she didn’t have anything at all. Compared to me…well.”

J.J. gestured to her own bosom, which she unnecessarily pushed out to further make her point. Jennifer deadpanned her daughter’s smugness. Recalling the night before, she had to admit to herself that J.J. had developed an impressive set for a one so young.

“I just kept laughing and walked away from her, Mom. They told me that after I went out, she sat down on the bench and started crying. I felt kind of bad about laughing at her after they told me that. When we were arguing, I didn’t know about what had happened to her. I didn’t mean to make her cry. You’ve always told me that I tend to have an acid tongue, but she just made me so mad I didn’t take time to think about what I was saying. In light of her current condition, I really feel bad about what I said and did.

“I hope Tommy isn’t the father, and I’m sorry she’s jammed up like that,  but she was asking for something bad to happen to her sleeping around like that without protection and trying to be so grown.”

The entire time, Jennifer watched her daughter’s face as she casually weaved her tale, complete with all the graphic details and terminology, and she understood why J.J. did not want to talk with her father about any of it. She would never have opened up to him as much given the subject matter. As close as they were, to have to have a talk like that between them would have embarrassed both of them to no end.

While grateful J.J. felt comfortable enough and trusted her enough to relate it all to her, she found the information overwhelming. It frightened her to hear firsthand what challenges kids faced with on a daily basis when parents put them on the school bus or dropped them off at the door of the school, a place that should be a safe haven. Research as a writer; however, told her that what happened in schools usually reflected the society in which the school existed.

And she still wondered why Tommy would agree to do what he had done without first being sure that he actually was the guilty party. The story indeed did not seem quite finished. What happened to that girl to make her bleed like that if she was so sexually active already?

The things children are exposed to, including my own….

“Mom?”

“Yes.”

“This is off the subject, but does my being such good friends with Tommy bother you?”

Jennifer hesitated, but only a second. “Not really. Not right now. But I do want you to be mindful that he is a boy and you aren’t. I think you overlook that sometimes.”

“Tommy and I have been friends it seems like forever.”

J.J. had hand and absently rubbed her thumb over the center stone in her wedding ring as she spoke. “I think if you had met Daddy when you were little, like how me and Tommy met, you would probably understand better. I bet you two would have been the kind of friends that we are. You would have talked to Daddy about anything and not have worried about what you had on when you were around him either. You would have trusted him because you were friends, like me and Tommy, like you and Daddy do now.”

“That is exactly why I have my eye on this thing with you and Tommy,” Jennifer thought as she smoothed the escaped hair back from J.J.’s forehead. “And exactly why you need to stay dressed around him.”

“Maybe so.” Was what she said aloud to her daughter. “Just no more nightgowns outside the bedroom without a robe, okay?”

“Okay. So, like, am I getting punished this time?”

“You should be.” Jennifer said, moving J.J.’s arms from her knees and getting up from the chair. “You frustrate me so. You do all the wrong things for all the right reasons.”

And what good would it do if she did punish her? If the situation involved Tommy, none whatsoever.

“J.J., don’t skip class. Put your robe on whenever you come out of this room and you’re not dressed. Don’t sneak people on the grounds in the middle of the night, and…”

“Yes Ma’am?”

Jennifer stopped walking across the room and looked back to the redhead still sitting on the hassock watching her.

“Don’t ever stop being my sweet girl.”

J.J.’s smile radiated both her relief and her sincerity. “I won’t, I promise. The things you tell me are things I need to know so I can tell fact from some made up stuff, and knowing I’ll have to deal with you when I don’t listen keeps me on point when temptation tries try to get to me. I’ll try real hard not to let you down, not like that I won’t.”

_________________________________________________

“She told you all of that?”

Jonathan found himself horrified by the story Jennifer shared and awed by her for having gotten it. “Didn’t you ground her for skipping class?”

Jennifer deliberately took her time swallowing her food.

They were outside on the patio, enjoying their late dinner. She had Marie hold their meals until Jonathan made it home. From where they sat, they could see J.J., who had already eaten, way out on the rear grounds playing with Third and his ball. As far as she knew, Jonathan knew nothing of their overnight guest, and he would not learn about it from her. J.J. and Tommy managed to pull that off without getting caught by him, and as far as she was concerned, that was good enough for her. He questioned her action on J.J. skipping class; he would never understand her letting J.J. harbor a boy in their guest house; it wouldn’t matter to him one whit that the boy was Tommy.

Thinking back on it, she wasn’t altogether sure she understood her own reaction to that situation. There was something about Tommy and J.J. that she couldn’t quite put her finger on yet.

“No. I started to,” she said, “but then I thought about it; what good would that have done? Punishments are assigned for the purpose of correcting a behavior. Presented with the same set of circumstances, she would do the exact same thing. Unfortunately, J.J. realizes she can skip a class or two and not miss a beat. Of course, I won’t have her doing it on a regular basis, but the fortunate part of it is, she’s self motivated, so she wouldn’t skip on a regular basis. She and Tommy are good friends, and they are going to look out for each other regardless of the consequences. J.J. has very strong convictions, and she’s going to act upon them when she thinks she needs to. You’ll have to admit, darling, that’s a trait she comes by honestly.”

He rubbed at his brow. “So what do I do about Tommy? Brenda’s not doing well. I went up to accounting today on the pretense of getting clarification on some figures, but it was really to check on her. She was performing her job duties as efficiently as ever, but I could tell she was stressed out. I called her when I got back to my office, and I sent her home early. I told her I would handle Tommy from here on out. I guess that means I’ll have to step all the way in tomorrow.”

Jonathan’s tense facial expression and weary his tone had her wondering what it would be like for him if it was his real son in that predicament. She refused to entertain what he would be like over his daughter in that scenario.

“Jonathan, J.J. gave me the impression during our talk this afternoon that Tommy might be having second thoughts. I think I might have interrupted a breakthrough this morning at the coffee shop when I walked up on the two of them in that back booth. She said something else interesting. It came to me later, after I left her room.”

“Yeah? What was that?”

“The girl’s father is Joel Scott. You know, Scott and Hammonds, that big commercial real estate firm.”

“And?”

“I met him at the school once. He doesn’t give a very good first impression. Seems like the type that likes to throw his weight around. ‘Bombastic’ is the word that comes to my mind.  J.J. said she thinks this girl asked Tommy to do this for her- say he’s the father- because he’s nice and because he doesn’t have a father to go up against her father in his defense.”

Catching the faraway look that developed in her husband’s eyes, Jennifer smiled to herself. For certain, the best possible place a fatherless boy in trouble could find himself was in Jonathan Hart’s hands.

_________________________________________________

In the locker room after school the next afternoon, J.J. stood palms pressed to the wall, leaning in and pushing away to stretch her hamstrings in preparation for running practice laps out on the track. The other team members had already gone out, leaving her in there by herself. She had purposely lingered in the sophomore hall at her locker upstairs before coming down to the athletic wing to insure she’d get a few minutes to herself to think things over.

At  beginning of the day, Tommy and his mother met for a long time with the counselor. Later, she looked for him at hall passing times, but she hadn’t seen him. Then at lunch their friend, Deon, reported to the group that Tommy had gotten called out of Biology via the intercom with instructions he should report to the main office ready to be dismissed for the day.

For the rest of the afternoon she struggled to stay focused, wondering what that was about. Who pulled Tommy from school in the middle of the day? Why hadn’t his mother taken him with her at the end of their meeting with the counselor? Tommy had Biology third period. Why had he gone home so early?

Rumors about Milini being pregnant were beginning to circulate. It wouldn’t be long before Tommy’s name got linked to the mess, and that was getting her down. She really needed to connect with Tommy to see how he was doing and what he planned to do to clear his name.

The door to the locker room squeaked open and slammed shut. Footsteps sounded, aimed in her direction. Seconds later, she found herself face to face with Milini Scott who jumped a little as if startled to see her there. She didn’t speak, though; after the quick stutter-stop, she continued on her way. J.J. listened and heard that she didn’t go outside.

When she finished her last long stretch, J.J. picked up her sweat towel and went around to the other side of the bank of lockers, over to where Milini’s locker was located. Milini sat on the bench as she pulled things from her locker to put into a gym bag. J.J. crossed her arms and stood a little way off to observe her. It appeared she was emptying the locker.

“What do you want?” Milini asked. She kept her back to J.J., but her voice sounded tired.

“I want you to tell me why you’re doing this to Tommy.”

“I’m not doing anything to Tommy. And what business is it of yours if I was doing something to or with Tommy?”

“Anything that involves that friend of mine involves me. Why are you dragging him into your mess?”

The girl on the bench sighed loud enough to be heard. “Leave me alone, J.J. You’re just mad because now he’s going to be connected to me forever.”

J.J. mentally checked herself. Instinct tried to dictate otherwise, but she had to remain calm and concentrate on controlling her tone of voice, especially since Milini wouldn’t look at her. She didn’t want to get shut out right away if that could be avoided.

“Can you explain to me why are you so hung up on me and Tommy? You mentioned that the other day. He and I are just friends, that’s all. If he wanted to be with you, he would be with you. I’m not keeping him from you. Do you think making like he did this to you is going to make him want to be with you? I know he’s not the one, and you know that, too.”

Milini swung around on the bench, her face twisted in fury. “You don’t know anything! I slept with him. It’s his baby. You can’t have everything, J.J. Hart.”

J.J. threw up her hands and pushed off the pillar she was leaned against. “Everything? Everything like what, Milini? What do I have that you don’t have? That you want? You’re a junior; I’m a sophomore. You’re smart, you’re pretty, your dad has money, you’re a cheerleader, you’re popular. What? I really don’t understand what you have against me. I haven’t ever done anything to you, at least not on purpose I haven’t, but all you do is dog me and talk about me. Why is that?”

“Look,” Milini said with a weariness J.J. could clearly hear. She turned back around on the bench. “I don’t feel well. Just shut up and go away, J.J. Leave me alone. I have a lot on my mind.”

Frustrated, J.J. slung her towel over her shoulder. “I am going to leave you alone for now, Milini Scott, but I’m not through with this. We are not through with this, you and me. I know your business, and what you’re doing isn’t right. You need to tell the truth about it and stop living in la-la land. What really happened is going to come to the light. You should have told when it happened to you. It needs to be handled. Maybe if you did that when you should have, you would have a few less things on your mind right now, or should I say, your conscience.”

Without waiting for a reply, J.J. stalked through the locker room and slammed out of the door to the field, so she didn’t see or hear Milini break down in choking sobs on the bench.

____________________________________________________

Jonathan drove with a silent and nervous Tommy in the passenger seat next to him. The boy was frightened. Why wouldn’t he be? He had spent the morning in the school counselor’s office with his mother after Joel Scott called the school to report his daughter’s pregnancy and Tommy’s alleged involvement. Then, he had come and pulled the boy out of Biology without warning or explanation to take him out of school for the day.

Finally, briefly looking over to Tommy as he drove, he put the question to him. “One time, Tommy, is this your baby?”

Silent for a moment, Tommy finally broke his silence. “I’m not real sure, Mr. Hart. I did have unprotected sex with her a couple of times, but that was a good while ago. I’ve heard a lot of things about her that say it could be somebody else’s. But all I know for sure is I did sleep with her like that, sir, so I can’t say with complete, absolute certainty it isn’t mine.”

His stomach flipping with both anger and dread, Jonathan roared, “Unprotected? Didn’t you hear anything I’ve told you all the times I’ve said it? Your mother says she’s talked with you too. Didn’t you hear any of that?”

Tommy said nothing. What could say behind his admission of sexual irresponsibility?

“Tell me this, Thomas Jordan Steele, why should I trust you around my daughter? You spend a lot of time with J.J. Maybe I shouldn’t allow that if you’re so out of control and careless.”

Tommy sprang forward, stopped only by the locked seatbelt. “No! I’m not out of control. Careless maybe, but not on the wild. It wasn’t like I raped Milini. She wanted it, and I wanted it, so we did it. J.J. isn’t like that. She and I are not like that. Something like that would never happen with J.J. and me. It isn’t like that with us, I swear. In fact, J.J. was the one who got all over me about having sex with Milini, and she’s the reason why I haven’t done it with anybody since then. She got me to see how wrong it was to do that the way that I was going about it. Please, Mr. Hart, I don’t want you to think you can’t trust me with J.J. I couldn’t stand you thinking that about me.”

“Then you need to start talking to me, son. We’re on our way to see this Scott girl’s father, and I’m going to need all the information I can get if I’m to come to your defense in this.”

 ____________________________________________________

J.J. chuckled as she and Marnie sat on the bench together in the locker room. “So, I understand you cursed out Jennifer Hart yesterday.”

She was getting dressed after her shower, and Marnie, who had come to hang out while J.J. and their other friends practiced on the track, sat on the bench waiting for her. They were the last two left in the locker room.

“Don’t be laughing about that. J.J.; it was so scary. She hemmed my ass up against that locker like she was going to take my lunch money from me. Her eyes were all gray-looking. She wasn’t mad about me cussing at her as much as she was that I tried to play it cagey about where you were. I should have known she already had it put together. Then she caught me trying to get to the cell phone to give you the heads up. I just had to go on and take that zero for the notebook check from that fat cow, Ms. Calvin. I think it gave her a buzz when she was writing it in her grade book. I don’t know how I’m ever going to face The Duchess in the car in a few minutes.”

“She’ll be okay. Don’t worry about it.” J.J. said, picturing her mother purposely catching Marnie’s eye in the rear view mirror, making her squirm and turn red on the ride home. “She’s probably still laughing at your embarrassment.”

“I got detention, too, for the next two Saturdays for being late to class so many times. That bitch Calvin wrote me a citation and turned me in on top of the giving me the damned zero. I hope her Slim-Fast goes bad on her and makes her throw up and gives her the runs. So how long are you on lockdown for skipping?”

“She didn’t put me on lockdown,” J.J. said as she brushed her damp hair back up into the ponytail. “She let me off the hook.”

Marnie’s mouth flew open. “What? You skipped two classes in one day, got caught sitting up in the coffee house with Tommy’s truant behind, and The Duchess didn’t skin you alive?”

J.J. finished with her hair, stuffed the brush into the bag with the rest of her things. “There were extenuating circumstances. She took them into consideration.”

Marnie stood up and grabbed her tote bag which matched her jacket and shoes.  “What extenuating circumstances would get you off the hook with your mother after she caught you skipping school? That’s got to be the ultimate sin with her, like a sacrilege or something. What was so important about going over there with Tommy anyway? You never did tell me.”

Before J.J. could answer, a low moan came from the area of the restrooms. The girls looked at each other.

“Did you hear that?” Marnie asked.

J.J. nodded.

It came again, and J.J. dropped her bag to run in that direction. Marnie set her bag down and followed, but walking a good few steps behind.

Inside the restroom, J.J. noticed all the stall doors were open except for the one on the far end from the door. She trotted down to it and pushed against the door. It was locked from the inside.

“Who’s in there?” she called out.

Marnie caught up to her and peeked down to the floor behind the door. “I know those Gucci loafers, J.”

J.J. dropped to all fours and put her head under the door to see inside the stall.

“Marnie, go outside. Yell for Coach, and tell my mother to call for an ambulance from the car and tell her she needs to come in here afterward. Hurry! Go!”

Without questioning anything, Marnie took off.

 ____________________________________________________

“Hart, don’t think you’re going to scare me into backing off. This boy has messed over with wrong man’s daughter. He has got to pay. I’ve already called the school and let the people in charge know.”

Jonathan sized up the stout man on the other side of the desk as he ranted, practically foaming at the mouth as he slammed a pudgy hand down on the glass top for emphasis. “If you think you’re going to come in here and to try to buy me off, you can forget it. This punk just needs to get a job and get ready to take care of this kid he made.”

Tommy had been warned before going in about letting Scott see him sweat or look beaten. The boy straightened his spine, lifted his chin, and looked directly at Joel Scott just as he had been instructed to do.

“First of all,” Jonathan said. “Where did you get the idea anybody was here to buy you off? And for what? It hasn’t been positively established that Tommy here is the father of the child-”

Scot cut him off. “What are you trying to say? That my little girl sleeps around? That she would lie to me about something like that?”

“I’m saying that it hasn’t been positively established that Tommy is the father of the child.” Jonathan repeated. “I think before any threats are made or demands are put in place about what he should do, paternity needs to be established as fact.”

“I don’t know what would make my daughter want to lay down with street trash like this anyway,” Scott sneered. ” And what’s your interest in this Hart? This isn’t your kid. You have a girl. Why aren’t you protecting her from scum like this?” He swept a hand toward Tommy, dressed in his leather riding jacket, jeans, and riding boots. “Are we raising our daughters to be defiled by the likes of this?”

Jonathan cut his eyes to Tommy, still sitting silently. He saw the boy bite his bottom lip, but took satisfaction in seeing the boy didn’t lower his head or his eyes from the man at the desk

However, he realized his own hand down in his lap had somehow become a fist.

He and Tommy should not be there. Tommy should not be any part of this. After all, it was he who supplied Tommy with his first box of condoms and told him to make sure he had one on “when it started raining.” He understood what it was like to be very young and impulsive along those lines. He knew all too well what it was like to be the kind of young male that young females were drawn to. Just as he had been at sixteen, Tommy was basically a good boy, and exceptionally caring but normal, healthy, reasonably attractive, red-blooded boy.

He leaned forward in the chair.

“First of all, Mr. Scott, this young man is not street trash, a punk, or scum. And for all practical purposes, Mr. Scott, he is mine, and if you refer to Thomas Steele by anything other than his name again, it won’t be my money or any perceived power play you’ll have to worry about; it will then become a personal matter between you and me. In this situation, you can consider me his parent because I am the one with whom you will be dealing. I don’t know how you are raising your daughter or what you are raising her to be, but I’m raising mine to be decent- and honest- people. This young man, I trust totally. I trust him with my daughter’s life.”

The sudden change in Scott’s expression said for the first time since the conversation began he realized he might be outmatched in terms of rage. When Jonathan leaned even further forward in his direction, Scott’s stout upper torso subtly retreated.

His voice gone cold to even his own ears, Jonathan advised, “I think you need to talk more with your daughter. If the child turns out to be this young man’s, I will personally see to it that he takes full responsibility. If it isn’t his child, then I will be sitting right next to him as you apologize to him for jumping the gun and disregarding his chance to defend himself. I brought Tommy here today to explain his case to you, but in light of the way things have gone in this meeting, he and I will take our leave at this point. Let’s go.”

Jonathan got up and waited for Tommy to rise, then followed him out of the office. As they closed the door, a phone could be heard ringing behind them.

____________________________________________________

It was a good while into the ride home before Tommy ventured, “Do you think less of me for this, Mr. Hart?”

Jonathan kept his eyes on the road and the traffic before them, but he answered right away. “No Tommy. Everybody makes mistakes, some just impact your life more than others. The important thing is to make sure you learn from the mistakes you make.”

He reached over to place a hand on Tommy’s shoulder. “The only difference in you and me at this moment is I’m older, and I have money. But I came from the same place as you- no, I was worse off. I didn’t have anything or anybody until I met my friend, Max, who I’ve told you about. You do have your mother, and you have me. Between the two of us, nobody is going to railroad you into anything. My gut, what you’ve told me, and what I’ve heard says this baby isn’t yours.”

“Did you mean what you said to Mr. Scott about trusting me with J.J.’s life?”

Jonathan glanced over at the boy watching at him with questioning, troubled eyes. “Every word of it, Tommy.”

The boy melted back into the seat, closed his eyes, and exhaled.

____________________________________________________

Following Marnie, Jennifer rushed into the locker room, the track coach close behind both of them. In the restroom, on the far end, a girl lie stretched out on the tile floor outside of the last stall, her head resting on a balled up jacket, her lower belly to her thighs swathed in blood stained towels.

When Jennifer stepped into the bloody stall, she found J.J. on her knees staring at something in the toilet bowl. She looked up and whispered to her, “It’s a baby.A  real baby. I have to try to get it out, Mom.”

Jennifer grabbed her by the wrist, stopping her from reaching into the crimson and burgandy, clotted water. “An ambulance is coming, sweetie,” she said as she pulled J.J. up from the floor. “There’s nothing anyone can do for it now.”

____________________________________________________

Jennifer cast her eyes down to J.J. leaning heavy against her shoulder. Her shirt,  jeans, and shoes were stained with rust-colored smears and spatters, her face ashen to the point of translucence, her eyes fixed and staring straight ahead. Not one word had she said since she finished with the triage nurse and the emergency room doctor.

Marnie, dazed and scared, leaned against J.J. The three of them had followed the ambulance to the emergency room where they sat waiting for either word on Milini Scott or for one of her parents to arrive. Coach Rogers, who rode in the ambulance with Milini, sat across from all of them.

Jennifer patted J.J.’s cheek. “How are you doing?”

“Not so good,” J.J. murmured, “but I’ll be okay. Don’t worry about me.”

Jennifer did worry about delayed reaction or shock with both girls, but especially J.J. Marnie had hung back in the distance once they spotted the girl on the restroom floor, but J.J. had been right there to see it all. She had gotten the girl to the floor and attended to her the best she could until help got there.

The doctors wanted to see and treat J.J., also, once they arrived at the hospital, but she refused to go to the back, telling the attending physician she wasn’t hurt and that she could handle herself. Being that J.J. wasn’t physically injured, she didn’t force her to go; it wasn’t a battle worth fighting. The doctor wound up writing a prescription for something to help her sleep later should she need it.

“Damn,” she heard Marnie whisper to nobody in particular.

Given the circumstances, she couldn’t reproach her. Instead, she reached behind J.J. to run a comforting hand over Marnie’s head.

“You girls did good,” the coach said once he clicked off the phone affixed to his head since they arrived. “It was lucky you two were in there. I might have been outside another half hour or more, and even then, I wouldn’t have come into the girls’ locker room. The girls out on the track usually go in, grab their gear, and head out. If nobody went to the use the facilities, who knows how long it would have been before the lady custodian came in to clean up? And Milini was all the way in the back, too?”

“J.J. did it all,” Marnie said. “She went up under the door when we found it was locked. She told me to go for help. J. got the towels, helped her down to the floor, and….everything else. I just went and got you guys. J. was in there with her the whole time.”

Jennifer felt J.J. tremble against her, and Marnie slide her arm around J.J. to rub her back.

Cupping J.J.’s face in her hand, Jennifer held her child even closer.

____________________________________________________

At home, with the events of the day behind them, Jonathan and Jennifer lie together in silence in the dark.

Once the Scott girl’s parents arrived at the hospital, the father made a nasty scene in the waiting room when he saw Jonathan and Tommy already there. Jennifer had reached Jonathan by phone just as he and Tommy came out of a restaurant where they had gone to talk over an early dinner. Jonathan hadn’t taken very well to the man’s reaction, so to spare her girls more trauma, Jennifer made the decision to remove J.J. and Marnie from the situation.

She saw to Marnie getting home and spoke with her mother, filling her in with more details than she’d given her on the phone when she contacted her to say Marnie would be delayed. Once she had J.J. home, she helped her get cleaned up, and got her over into the bed. J.J. turned down the offer of something to eat, and for once she put her homework to the side saying she would try to get up early to get it done. As far as she was concerned, school was out for J.J. for the next day. She planned to call and let her counselor know she wouldn’t be there, and to ask that the teachers put together work to be picked up. The girl would need some down time after all she had seen and gone through. Her mother would need to keep an eye on her to make sure she was all right, and to be there if she needed to talk. Occasionally there really were more important things than school.

After flatly refusing to take the sleep medicine sent by the emergency room doctor, J.J. thanked her for being there and asked her to please just leave her to herself. She felt she could get to sleep on her own. Reluctantly, she had done as J.J. asked.

Lying there in the dark, listening for J.J. had her on edge, and that put Jonathan on edge about her. Now in their own bed, in their own world, they held tight to each other. For both of them, it was holding on to the life they had established and their sanity. It had been a trying day and evening, frightening then draining. A sixteen-year-old girl, alone in a restroom stall, experienced a miscarriage, and their fifteen-year-old daughter had been witness to it and the one to take charge in the immediate emergency.

Jonathan broke the long silence, asking, “How was she?”

By the time he got back from taking Tommy home and speaking with Brenda Steele about what happened with the girl and the baby, J.J. had already gone to bed. Exhausted, he had been too unnerved by all that went down to even peek in on his child. He was confident of Jennifer’s handling of her. She would never have left J.J. over there in the room on her own if she wasn’t as well as could be expected.

“She’s confused,” Jennifer answered. “She’s angry and pretty silent on the matter.”

“Not a word about it, huh?”

“Not one, about any of it. Not since she spoke with the triage nurse in emergency and the doctor who wanted to see her.”

“What did the doctor want with her? Was she hurt?”

“No, I think he wanted to check her over for shock. Maybe ask her some questions to guage how traumatized she was. She didn’t have much to say to him, and she refused to go to the back with him to get checked out. I didn’t make her. It woudn’t have done any good. He wouldn’t have gotten any more out of her in the back than he was getting from her where we were.”

“Will you try to talk with her? She can’t sit on all of that, Jennifer. She’s seen and been through too much.”

“She’ll come to me when she’s ready.”

Another quiet span of time went by, he holding her in his arms, she lying on his chest listening to the beat of his heart, before he spoke again.

“They talked with the girl once they admitted her and got her up on the floor. I don’t like using my pull, but I had to this time; Tommy was a basket case by that time. I left him in the ER waiting room, and I went up to the room. I told Scott to find out what was going on, or I was getting my lawyers in on it. Turns out she had already told her mother that it wasn’t Tommy’s baby; she admitted to asking Tommy to cover for her until she could figure out what to do. When Scott’s wife told him that, he started in on his daughter. Right there in front of the doctors and nurses. About her being a tramp. And then he went after his wife for not keeping a closer eye on her. It was so ugly, Jennifer. He wasn’t even dealing with how sick his daughter is. I left them, went back to the waiting room, scooped up Tommy, and got him home. I reamed him all the way. There are favors, and there is foolishness. I told him in front of his mother once I had him back to her that if he ever put himself in a position like that again, I’d kick his ass myself.

“Jonathan!”

“I meant every word of it, and he knew it. He’s too good a boy, and his mother has worked too hard to get him to where and how he is. He owes it to her and to himself to be a better man than that.”

“Well, he owes it to you too, darling. You’ve put a lot of your own time and patience into helping with him.”

“I owe big,” he said, “for Max coming into my life, for you being sent to me, and for our daughter. Working with Tommy is what I’m supposed to do.”

“You love that boy, Jonathan. It’s okay to say it.”

“Yeah, I guess I do,” he quietly admitted, and she could feel his smile.

There was a knock at the door. A bit startled, they both sat up. Jonathan switched on the light. It could only be J.J., but she rarely came to them in the night.

“Come on in,” he called.

J.J. entered, barefoot and wrapped in a white terry cloth robe with the dog trotting closely behind her. She came across the room and sat on the side of the bed next to her father while Third went around to Jennifer’s side and hopped up into the chair.

“I tried,” she said, her eyes briefly flitting to her mother then back to him, “but I couldn’t get to sleep. I don’t know why… I’m tired. I close my eyes… but… I keep… keep…keep seeing… Daddy, why?” The pooling tears spilled over, and she covered her face with her hands.

He pulled her to him so she could lay her head on his shoulder and he could wrap her up in his arms. She was fifteen. He didn’t get many occasions to hold her, comfort her, like that any more; she was so self-sufficient, there usually wasn’t a need. For perhaps the hundredth time since the ugly chain of events began, he prayed for her safe deliverance to womanhood, free of the pitfalls and heartache a single impulsive, hormone-driven decision could bring.

As Jennifer looked on, she realized Jonathan was what J.J. needed for what ailed her; not sleeping pills, not to talk: she needed her daddy’s strong, protective arms about her. Her thoughts then drifted to little Milini Scott and her father.

She sent up a prayer for both of them and another of thanks for the two people next to her and that bond they shared.

____________________________________________________

Jennifer and J.J. took seats in the front room of the Scott home after the maid asked them to wait there for Ariana Scott, Milini’s mother. After a full week in the hospital, Milini was finally home.

J.J. had gone to her mother to ask what she thought of paying a visit. She still had not initiated a discussion about what had happened, and Jennifer resisted asking her anything. At J.J.’s request to pay the Scott girl a visit, she immediately called Mrs. Scott, and made the arrangements.

After greeting them both, and thanking J.J. again for helping Milini that day, Mrs. Scott instructed the maid to take J.J. up to Milini’s room while the two women stayed downstairs to talk.

The woman took J.J. to the bedroom door. J.J. knocked and went in when Milini called out in answer.

J.J stopped just inside the door, and for a moment, both girls eyed each other uneasily. Finally, J.J. went to where Milini sat in a chair next to the window and handed her the flowers she had brought.

“Hey Mil.” she said. “I got these for you.”

“Hey J.,” Milini said, her stony expression softening. “Thanks so much. Thanks for coming to see me.”

There was another awkward pause and then at the same time they both said, “Look-” and had to giggle nervously.

“You first, J.J.,” Milini conceded. “You’re company.”

“I- I just wanted to come by and say I’m sorry for everything that happened. I know we haven’t gotten along, and I don’t know why that is, but I really am sorry.”

Milini dropped her eyes down to her lap and the floral arrangement she held there.

“Thanks J.J. I’m sorry, too, about us, about all this. I’ve made a real mess.”

“Messes can be cleaned up,” J.J. said. “It’s not the end of the world.”

Milini slowly shook her head. “I don’t know. My father isn’t speaking to me. He didn’t come to see me in the hospital after that first day. I think he hates me. He wasn’t too crazy about me to start with because I’m not a boy. My parents are fighting tooth and nail.”

She held the flowers to her nose.

“J.J., what actually happened to me is a lot worse than you know. I’m sorry about the thing with Tommy. I came clean. You were right; I knew. He’s just such a nice guy, and I did want to be with him. I thought if I let- he- but I guess nice guys are out for somebody like me now. Once everybody finds out… I’ve already gotten a few calls…”

J.J. willed back the tears attempting to form. Nobody got to see her cry in public.  “Don’t say that Mil, and ignore those ignorant people who try to harass you. It might feel like it now, but it’s really not the end of the world. ”

“It sure feels like it. Is your mother downstairs, J.J.?”

“You know she is”, J.J. said. “You of all people are aware of how she doesn’t let me too far out of her eyesight.”

In the past, Milini frequently teased her about not being able to hang out as freely as others on the weekends. Her parents kept her busy traveling with them, involved in some activity at school, or like them, engaged in many social and civic obligations. Her parents or the housekeeper dropped her off or picked her up from school every day, unlike most other kids who either rode the bus or were free to catch a ride with anyone on or in anything going in their direction. One of both of her parents attended most of her school functions, and her father rarely missed a track meet.

She had always taken Milini’s taunting in stride; it stung sometimes, but she appreciated her parents being attentive even if occasionally she found it a little too restrictive to her adventurous nature.

“Don’t knock it, J.J. Be glad your folks care so much about where you are and what you’re doing. I know I rode you a lot about that, but it’s kept you out of bad trouble so far. I think that’s why I give you such a hard time. Your parents spend so much time with you. You know for sure that they love you. Everybody seems to love you.”

“I’m sure not everybody likes me. Some just tolerate me because they’re too scared to do otherwise.”

Both girls had to smiled at that. For Milini, J. never seemed phased by her taunts no matter how far she took things. As for J.J., she had been told enough times to suspect there was some truth to it that she could be intimidating at times, even though she didn’t consciously go out of her way to be.

Milini raised her eyes from the flowers to the girl standing over her. “A lot of guys like you, and you’re just a sophomore. And you don’t even do anything to get them to like you. They just do.”

There wasn’t anything to say to that. J.J. only knew that she enjoyed being with the guys and they liked being with her. She didn’t have an explanation for it. That was just how it had always been. She had always liked doing or was interested in the kinds of things guys did or enjoyed, and they liked that about her. As long as they didn’t invade her personal space, it was all fine as long as they kept it friendly. She wasn’t interested in more than that with anyone at the moment.

More comfortable than when she first arrived, J.J. sat down on the arm of Milini’s chair.

“Mil, you know, my mother has this thing that she says. She says things happen to the people they’re supposed to happen to, when they’re supposed to happen, and in the way they’re supposed to happen. I don’t know what really went on with you, and I don’t think that I want to know; that’s your business. But I do believe everything happens for a reason. Try to think of it all like that, and see what you can get out of it, even if what happened is really bad. That’s what I do when awful things happen to me that I can’t understand. I try to figure out what I can learn from it once I get past the bad feelings.”

Milini leaned forward to put the vase with the flowers on the little table by the chair and sat back. J.J. saw her frown, as if it pained her to move.

“See J.J., that’s what I’m talking about. You’re younger than me, but you always seem to have it together. You’re always so calm and seem so sure of yourself. You have it all. You’re so smart, you’re cute, you’re fun, people like you.” Milini lowered her voice and said, ” I’m jealous of you. I have been for a while. I thought if the boys liked me like they like you, then I could have some of that.”

J.J. frowned at what Milini said.

“Mil, that just it. Boys don’t like me like that. They like me because I’m a jock. Because I like math and science, and I’m in those classes with them. They like me because I’m a tecchie, and usually it’s boys that are. I do boy stuff. They don’t like me like boy-girl liking. You have your own world, Mil. Everybody does. I have my problems too. I just have a whole lot of help dealing with them. That much is lucky about my life. The being smart thing, I work really hard in school; I like it. Cute- that’s in the eye of the beholder and it’s mostly genetic; we don’t have a lot of control over that. I do like to have fun, and I like for the people around me to have fun. And the guys, they aren’t that high on my list right now. They’re just for hanging out with and having fun with. That includes Tommy. I’m too scared to do more with them right now.”

Milini heaved a wistful sigh as she turned her face to the window. “I wish I had been.”

J.J. felt so bad for her, but what was done, was done. They both needed to get past it. It wouldn’t be easy for either of them; it would be much harder for Milini, but they both had a lot of living in front of them to do. She placed a hand on Milini’s shoulder.

“I came here to tell you that I don’t want to fight any more, Mil. I came here to say we need to squash the negativity. We’re both on the same team; we’re both girls.”

“My mother said you saw the baby,” Milini whispered, looking up at J.J.’s face.

J.J. didn’t respond. She didn’t want to talk about that. She hadn’t spoken of it to anyone but her mother, and that was at the moment.

Milini waited for her to say something. She turned back toward the window when she didn’t get a response.  The next thing she said came in a voice so soft J.J. had to strain to hear her.

“He took me to a house, and they were waiting for me. I said,’no’, but they didn’t listen. They hurt me, J.J. So bad. They didn’t have to do that to me. I haven’t told anybody about it, not even my mother. The doctors say I might never have another baby-ever.”

“They?” J.J. asked, leaning forward to see into Milini’s face and catching sight of a tear sliding down her cheek. The meaning behind that one word shook her to her core. She felt sick to her stomach.

She slid her arm about Milini’s neck. Milini reached for and took her hand.

They sat like that until their mothers came up for them.

____________________________________________________

Jonathan located J.J. out in the gazebo. The days had gone by, and he had to fly out the following evening. With everything that transpired, it dawned on him he had not spoken with her about flying with him to D.C. He made all the other arrangements, had even contacted Stephen to let him know that they were coming, but he had neglected to ask J.J. if she even wanted to go. He figured she would, and since she could pack a suitcase as fast and as efficiently as her mother, last minute would likely not be a problem for J.J. Hart. Typically, if he said “Let’s”, she said, “Go,” and beat him out the door.

But since her visit to Milini, J.J. had been very quiet, practically shut down, and she hadn’t said anything to Jennifer about any of it. Jennifer refused to push her, and he understood her reasoning, but he refused to let J.J. hold on to it any longer. It was time for her to give it up and move on.

She was sitting on the locked swing with Third in her lap, rubbing his ears as she stared out in front of her. He called her name, and she jumped.

“Daddy!”

It surprised her to see him there. The gazebo, way out on the grounds where the wildflowers grew, was her spot. It was where her mother sometimes came to write. He rarely had reason to venture into that area on his own.

“What are you doing here?” she asked as he climbed the stairs.

“I was looking for you.” He sat down next to her. “I wanted to know if you’d like to fly with me this weekend.”

“I’m game for flying any time. Where are we going?”

“I’ve got business in Washington, and then I thought we could go on to Maryland afterward and see your grandfather.”

“And Triple J?” She loved that horse her grandfather boarded for her.

That smile he missed so much made him smile. “You know it.”

“When do we leave?”

“Tomorrow afternoon as soon as you get out of school. We’ll stay the weekend and come back on Sunday night.”

“Cool. Is my mother going with us?”

“Nope. It’ll just be you and me. She’s going to the spa to relax. You can get some flight time in.”

“She’s going to kill us both when she finds out about me flying, Daddy.”

“Yeah, I know. But think of how much fun we will have had and how much you will have learned before we go.”

She nodded. They both grinned in their collusion.

Then Jonathan sobered. “J.J. what’s going on with you?”

“Me?”

“You. I understand you normally go to your mother about things like this, but she tells me you haven’t said anything to her about all of what happened. Why is that?”

She shrugged and hung her head.

“That’s quite a bit for you to keep to yourself, don’t you think?”

She pulled Third closer to her breast, as if trying to cover her heart with his body. “What’s to say? It’s done. It’s over.”

He slid his arm along the back of the bench, around her, and leaned in, inviting her head to rest on his shoulder. “But is it over in your mind?”

She took his shoulder up on the offer and raised her face to his. Her eyes spoke before she did. “No, it isn’t. I think about it all the time.”

“May I ask you talk to me about it?”

She turned her face away and sighed again. “What’s there to say? The boys won again; they always win. What is there to say about that? It’s how it is and how it will always be.”

“What do you mean, sweetheart?”

“I mean boys get to do whatever they want. Girls are expected to live by another set of rules and a higher set of standards. It isn’t fair, I hate it’s that way, but that’s how it is.”

It wasn’t the truth in what she said that bothered him; it was that she already recognized the inequity.

“You sound kind of bitter, J.J.”

She slowly shook her head and sighed. “Not bitter, Daddy. But it does disgust and anger me. When I went to see Milini, we talked. Before all this happened, she and I were beefing a lot- well, she was beefing with me more than I was with her, but that’s out of the way now. She filled me in on some things I didn’t realize about myself and made me see that I needed to shift some things around in my own head.”

After a brief pause, J.J.’s voice came much softer.

“She got raped. On that half day we had back in the spring, that time my mother didn’t come for me, and all the kids went up in the hills to the skip party, Milini went off with some boy she had just met and really didn’t know, and she came back kind of messed up. I told my mother that, but what Milini said to me up in her room was “they” hurt her. I think she meant she went with that boy and ended up getting raped by more than one person. I didn’t want her to tell me for sure that was what they did  to her, but Philly told me Milini was hurt bad when she got back that house. Those guys had their so-called fun, but she’s the one left with the pain, the trauma, and the dead baby. They did what they did, and dropped her back off, like she was nothing, just something they played with for while and tossed aside when it broke and wouldn’t work any more.”

Jonathan opened his mouth to say something, but J.J. held up her hand.

“No let me finish telling you. If I stop now, I won’t go back to it.”

He gestured with his hand for her to proceed.

“She says she’s too ashamed to come back to school, and she doesn’t even know who to blame for hurting her. She told me she might not ever be able to have kids when she wants to. Everybody knows now, and people at school are talking about it and blaming her saying she shouldn’t have gone with that boy. Saying she should have known better than to be going around talking about who she was doing. Some of the girls who were standing around listening, checking out her sex book, telling her how cool and sophisticated she was for sleeping around are now going around talking about what a slut she is. I agree she could have handled herself better, but nobody ever says that about the boys when they sleep around.

“Nobody is talking about the dogs that did that to her. It’s like it was expected of those boys to act that way because she put herself out there. Daddy, it’s okay for a boy to have sex and brag and talk about it, but a girl gets labeled a ‘slut’ if she does it-  sometimes even if somebody makes her do it.”

When J.J. turned her face up to his again, it hurt to witness the confusion and pain there. J.J. didn’t open up to him like that most times. It was not the type of conversation in which they normally engaged, and Jonathan found himself at a loss for words.

Sex book?

It turned out he didn’t need to say anything at that juncture because J.J. wasn’t finished.

“I even did that. Just like everybody else, I condemned Milini right off the bat. She bragged a lot about having sex, talked about it all the time to whoever would listen. Sometimes I thought she was just making things up to be popular or something. But you know, guys do that all the time, sometimes it’s the truth; sometimes it’s a lie, but when they do it, they’re kings. When girls do it, we call them tramps. Even when a boy lies about having been with a girl because he’s mad at her or he’s trying to win points with his boy; he’s the man and the girl is left embarrassed and hurt, and at times suspect.

“I put Milini down for having sex, but I accepted it as okay for Tommy without a thought. He wasn’t going around bragging about it, but at no time did I think of him as loose like I did with Mil. Tommy and Milini did it together. Why did I only make her the tramp? Then after giving it some thought, I began thinking it okay for her to be like that if she would just be quieter about it. But why should she have to be? Guys aren’t, and they aren’t condemned for it.”

She sat all the way up and turned to put them face to face as if the answers she sought were somewhere on his face.

“Why is it like that, Daddy? If a boy wants to sleep around, somebody just hands him a box of condoms and tells him to go ahead and have a good time. But who is it he’s being given permission to have the good time with? The girl who gets labled a slut simply because she’s doing the same thing the boy is doing. If it weren’t for  girls who do what comes naturally, who are the boys with the condoms going to have some natural ‘fun’ with?

“Unless they’re gay, I guess, but that’s off topic.”

J.J. slid down a little and lay her head back on his arm. “I don’t know,” she said as her fingers resumed combing the dog’s curly coat. “Maybe I’m not making sense. Maybe I’m still too young to get it. I just don’t understand why things are the way that they are. Who came up with these rules? It’s so unfair the way it is. Girls get early curfews, get watched and questioned about where they’re going, with who, and all that because there are boys who take advantage. How about keeping everyone to the same standards so girls and parents don’t have to be nervous about boys? Or since the boys wreak all the havoc, keep them in and let the girls be able to walk around and have fun without worrying about being molested. When I think about it too long, like I have been for the past few days, I get mad, and I get scared. I don’t think I’ll ever have a boyfriend or fall in love. It’s just too much trouble.”

Jonathan struggled to not let show the strong surge of guilt he felt. Everything his daughter said was true, especially for him. She was speaking to what he had done. He gave Tommy that box of condoms, fully expecting that at close to fifteen, sex would be in his near future. Now J.J. was fifteen, and the thought of her even going on a date raised his blood pressure. He had as much as given Tommy license to have sex, but as fond as he was of him, he would wring that same boy’s neck for making a sexual move on J.J.

He accepted that Tommy, now sixteen, was having sex, but it would kill him to learn J.J. was doing the same thing at sixteen. What messages was he inadvertently sending those two kids? Upon quick reflection, he came to the somewhat painful conclusion that his anger with Tommy in that situation had been for getting caught, not for having recreational sex.

He had even gotten angry with Jennifer at times for being so candid with J.J. about sex. It was the most serious of the few sore points between them. Jennifer told J.J. everything, no holds barred, no silly euphemisms, or as she put it, “no fairy tales”. Jennifer told her daughter the raw truth. At fifteen, J.J. Hart was knowledgeable about reproductive systems, male and female sex, gay sex, oral sex, rape, date rape drugs, being promiscuous and its repercussions, birth control methods; she had learned it all from her mother. J.J. was comfortably conversant on all of those topics, and in the beginning, it made him more than a little uneasy.

But every time he approached Jennifer with his misgivings, she shut him down. Adamant that her daughter would not be in the dark about those things that might alter her future, her life, she made it clear to him that she alone was her mother. As such, she was most responsible for making sure J.J. did not grow up ignorant, her head filled with fairy tales, falsehoods, and misconceptions. At times, Jennifer’s responses to his questioning her judgment in that area bordered on vicious. Those were the few times that other, more frightening side of his wife had reared its head. Jennifer might not be generally maternal, but she was fiercely so when it came to that child next to him.

Her reactions sometimes made him wonder about his wife and the baggage she might be carrying from her own adolescence and young womanhood, times in her life of which she rarely spoke without prompting.

Sitting there listening to J.J. work things out for herself, he had to admit Jennifer had a point. For all of J.J.’s knowledge, and despite her rather large collection of male friends with whom she regularly interacted in and out of school, he was positive she was still a child and would remain one for a while to come. She seemed in no hurry to get close to any boy on an intimate level or to have any boy get too close to her. But he didn’t like what she said about being afraid to fall in love. He made a mental note to speak with Jennifer about that comment.

Jennifer said these were children doing adult things, and no matter how he tried to justify it to himself, that was exactly what he had more or less given Tommy permission to do with other people’s daughters.

J.J. sat up again and turned away from him to stare off into the distance, the way he found her when he first approached the gazebo. Her profile, so much like Jennifer’s. Like her mother, she possessed a sharp, quick mind. That closed, stoic face probably belied those wheels still at work in her head. The two of them, Jennifer and J.J. were always reading, watching, evaluating, thinking, re-evaluating, making those around them think, too, just to keep up. In their time together, Jennifer had been the catalyst for him rethinking what he initially accepted as a solid, justifiable position in several situations. Now her daughter was doing the same thing to him.

“I won’t pretend to have the answers to your questions.” he said after much reflection. “In fact, you’ve just raised some new ones for me to consider. I only know, J.J., that this is how things have been for centuries. It isn’t right, but that’s how it is. But, you  know, sweetheart, I’ve always tried to see, and to teach you to see, that obstacles and bad things that happen are opportunities for improvement. I think all of us that have been involved in latest bad situation can take that much away from all of this and find something to build upon. I can hear you have adjusted some of your former positions about some things. I need to adjust a few of my perceptions too.”

With that one arm, he pulled her back close to him. “But above and beyond all this, you do know one thing don’t you?”

“What’s that?”

“That I love you. Right?”

“All the time, Daddy. I love you, too.”

He sat up and took her hand. “Then come on. Let’s go get packed.”

____________________________________________________

Part Three

“I just still want to know why the hell I was left out of the loop.” Marnie demanded as she dealt the last of the deck to the others at the lunch table. “Nobody told me a damn thing and quite frankly, I’m offended. I gotta wait ’til stuff hits the fan to find out what’s up.”

J.J. frowned as she checked out and sorted the hand she’d been dealt.. “Are you still talking about that? I told you, I didn’t know myself until the last minute. And you can’t hold water, much less a closely guarded secret. Now are you going to play or what?”

Tommy, quiet as usual, sorted the cards in his hand and then fanned them face up in front of him on the lunch table. “Gin.”

“Shit.” Marnie tossed her hand across the table in disgust. “Even the cards are holding out on me.”

As pairs of eyes furtively glanced around for cafeteria monitors, money exchanged hands under the table. The bell rang, and everyone there gathered their things to leave.

“I’ve got a bone to pick with you J.J. Hart. I’m not through with this.” Marnie said as she snatched up her bag. “You and I will be talking later. Your ass will be gone all weekend with your father, so we need to take care of this today. Meet me at the lockers after last period. I thought we were girls.”

She huffed off.

J.J. smirked behind her. “Whatever.” She stood to sweep up the cards and put them in her backpack. Only Tommy remained seated at the table with her.

“Aren’t you going to be late?” she asked him.

“I don’t see you in any hurry.” he countered.

“My class is right next door, and I have two more tardies to use before I have to worry about detention.” J.J. zipped the backpack closed and pulled it up from the bench to her shoulder. “Besides Mr. Cason likes me. I fixed his computer when it crashed the last time. He didn’t have to wait for a work order to be put in and for a district technician to feel like coming to look at it. Cason’s my little friend now. He never knows when he’s going to need me again, so he lets me slide on some stuff.”

Tommy stood, but wrapped a hand around her forearm, causing her to stop. “What?”

“I just wanted to say thanks.”

“For what?”

“For being a good friend. For believing in me. You got on me last spring and you made me think about how reckless I was being. This last thing made me see how bad it could have been and how many people really do care about me. It’s so bad for Milini. I wish there was still some way I could help her.”

J.J. reached for his hand, and he took it. “You tried, Tommy. I respect you for that. I heard my father say he respects you too. You were ready to accept your responsibility even when you were pretty sure you weren’t it just to help her save face. Not many guys would have put themselves out there like that before knowing the facts. Some of them won’t do it even after they know the facts. Just keep being her friend, and don’t lead girls on if you don’t mean it.”

“Let’s go to class,” he said, keeping hold of her hand as they left the table. “No sense in you using up a perfectly good tardy for a class that’s right next door.”

They laced fingers, and squeezed tightly as they headed for the door.

____________________________________________________

Jennifer watched from the front door as Jonathan and J.J. loaded the car. He was taking J.J. to school and would be picking her up at the end of the day and heading for the airport. They looked so stylish in their matching black leather jackets, black jeans and boots. She enjoyed watching them together. Jonathan loved his child, his pride and joy. J.J., in turn adored her father and relished being in his company.

From the very beginning, they shared that easy-going rapport. J.J. even moved like her father: tall, shoulders squared, giving off that strong air of self-assurance. She wondered how long it would be before one or both of them finally broke down and told her about J.J. flying that plane. They had been at it for three years now with neither of them saying a word to her about it. As far as they knew, she didn’t suspect thing. She didn’t have absolute proof or specifics, but….

She smiled to herself thinking both of them ought to know better. They never could put anything over on her, and something that big was a lost cause from the start.

Jonathan closed the trunk and turned to her. “Well darling, we’re going to get out of here. I filed the plan for six-thirty. I’ll call you when I leave the office and before we take off.

He came to her and put his arms around her, holding her close. “I’m going to miss you.”

“I’ll miss you too. I’ll be thinking of you while I’m relaxing in that whirlpool.”

He leaned back a little to look into her eyes. “You do that,” he said pulling her tighter to him at the waist, which put her lower body in even closer contact with his. She blushed as she looked over his shoulder to see where J.J. was and if she was watching. Then he kissed her and let her go, pleased with himself at the soft moan he earned and her reddened cheeks as he turned away and headed for the car.

J.J finished putting her book bag in the back seat and adjusting the headphones to her CD player. She deliberately turned away from her parents, determined not to look that way until her father moved away from her mother, thinking how they were a trip and too old for all of that carrying on.

Not having wanted to talk any more about the incident after her time in the gazebo with her father, she purposely arranged to not get too close to her mother in the ensuing days. It was her intention to just wave and leave to go on this trip, but at that last moment, the urge to go to her surged. How could she leave without going to her? But after avoiding her for so long, how could she do it without appearing fake and last minute?

When her father came to his side of the car, she turned around to her mother now standing just outside the front door. “Have fun at the spa, Mom, and enjoy your J.J.-less weekend. No stress.”

Her mother tilted her head, a question mark forming above her head. “Is that all I get?” She put her hands on her hips. “And how is it you get to be the judge of my stress? Maybe I like it.”

When what her mother said and her tone didn’t match the mischievous look on her face, J.J. lost her reserve. The weight of the previous days lifted as she ran to her mother’s arms and melted into her.

“I wondered how long it would take you to get here,” she heard her say.

As her mother held her, the hurt and confusion seemed to leave her too-tense body. For a fleeting moment, she wished she could stay there forever, where it was safe, where if she held on tight, maybe she wouldn’t ever have to grow up.

But….

That plane, those skies, and her life were waiting for her outside that safe, sure place.

“This is what I’m talking about, Justine,” the words came whispered into her ear. “When things gets too heavy, you can always bring them to me. For now, I’m here to handle what you cannot.”

The Duchess smiled and smoothed her hair once she moved her back to see into her face. “Now you go. Have a good day in school, and a good weekend with your father and Pa and that horse. Behave.”

“I love you,” J.J. said. “Thank you for being there; just knowing you had my back has helped a lot. I’m going to miss you. Have a great weekend yourself.”

“I’ll miss you, too,” Jennifer s released her, but quickly took her by the arm before she could turn all the way around to go to the car. J.J. turned back to her.

“And when you get back to home to me, J.J.” she said, “you continue being my sweet girl.”

J.J. shot her a smile, a quick thumbs up, and headed for the car.

 End

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