The phone rang.
It rang again, and I blinked to clear my head.
I turned as it rang a third time, but my thoughts were still in the past. When I finally picked up the receiver, I heard my wife talking to Leah, so I quietly hung up.
After a long moment I turned back to my drafting table. I’d been sitting in front of an elevation drawing full of lines and numbers and symbols. I had the full-color artist’s rendering somewhere, but I didn’t need it. I could see the finished building in my head. That was my gift. Mozart heard symphonies—I saw buildings.
I focused on the drawing for the first time in ... hours. I’d been sitting at my table since mid-afternoon, but I hadn’t really been here. I’d been thinking about the past. About college. I smiled sardonically. I’d made a lot of mistakes—I shook my head at the sheer stupidity of some of them—but I’d also grown up. A lot.
I turned as my wife entered the room.
“That was Leah on the phone,” she said. “She wanted to make sure we knew.”
I nodded. Then I tried to smile, but it was tinged with grief. My wife’s answering smile was an echo of my own. I’ve always been amazed by how we could communicate without actually speaking. My parents did the same thing. I guess I was more like them than I wanted to admit, but maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing after all.
My wife gently prodded me from my silence. “You’ve been in your own little world, haven’t you?” She saw the truth in my eyes.
“How’s Leah?” I finally asked.
“She’s still in shock. We all are. But she’s doing the only thing she can.”
I met her eyes. Life goes on, I answered silently.
She nodded. “She and Mark and the kids are flying out tomorrow afternoon.”
I sighed and threatened to turn introspective again.
“It’s six o’clock,” my wife continued. It was a gentle reminder. “I need to pick up Susie and go to the grocery store. You need to—”
“Pick up Emily and get Laurie from practice,” I finished. Then I smiled, although it was more for myself than my wife. She understood. We both had things to do, errands to run, lives to live.
Life goes on.
I grew thoughtful on the short drive to Trip’s house. The air conditioner labored to cool the big SUV, but I hardly noticed the heat. Summer is hot. I felt a stab of bitter anger—summer is hot, and people die. It was a fact of life. I didn’t have to like it, but I’d have to live with it.
Trip was throwing a baseball with his son when I pulled up. They both waved, and Trip tossed the ball to Davis. The boy—now a young man, all arms and legs—headed toward his pitching net. As Trip approached, he saw my expression and grew concerned.
“Is everything okay?”
When I told him, he let out a breath like someone had kicked him in the chest. I knew the feeling. He asked how I was holding up, and recognized my answer for the lie that it was. Thankfully, he let it go, so I told him about the funeral plans.
“Are you going to fly yourself?” he asked.
I nodded. “I thought we’d take the King Air, so you and Wren and the kids can go with us.”
I sketched out the plans as we walked through the garage. I dropped my voice when we entered the house, but Emily and Missy must’ve been upstairs. Wren heard the tone of our conversation and her eyes darted to me. She hugged me tight when I told her. Trip put his arms around both of us and we stood in silence.
The sound of feet pounding down the stairs finally thrust us apart. Wren wiped her eyes and forced a smile. She touched my arm with a familiar, tender gesture. Then we had to put on our adult faces as the girls burst into the kitchen.
“What’s going on?” Emily asked. She’d begun to pay attention to grown-up emotions. Worse, she wasn’t the quiet people-watcher her sister Laurie was. Instead, she asked direct questions and wanted direct answers. I couldn’t give her one. Not yet, at least.
“Just waiting for you,” I said.
Fortunately, she was too well-mannered to quiz me. Her mother had a strict rule about being polite.
We said goodbye and headed out to the car. Emily climbed into the passenger seat and gave me a speculative look. I preempted her questions by asking her to pick the radio station. She chose hip-hop, and I let her turn the volume up.
Ten minutes later, we pulled into the parking lot to wait for Laurie. She emerged from the building with a gaggle of other girls. When she saw us, she smiled and waved. She had my wife’s complexion, but her cheeks were rosy from the sun.
“Cool music, Dad,” she half-shouted as she climbed into the back seat.
I turned the radio down. Emily frowned, but didn’t object.
“Thanks for picking me up,” Laurie said in a more normal tone.
“Dad’s Taxi,” I joked, “at your service.”
I didn’t want to lapse into silence, since it would give me too much time to think. Besides, Emily might decide to ask questions after all. Laurie didn’t need to—she could read me like a book. So we talked about everyday things on the short drive home. Fortunately, the girls headed to their rooms when we got there. I sank into my office chair and let my mind wander. It wandered to the past, of course.
Most of the things I learned in college were routine, part of the background. But some were Life Lessons, with capital letters. Perhaps the most important was that I couldn’t coast through life. Oh, I tried. Believe me, I tried. But it always ran me over, and I guess I got tired of cruising on autopilot.
Another Lesson was the difference between learning and being taught. In retrospect, my life before college had been easy. People taught me how to speak, how to act, how to live. I had my parents and Susan. I had other teachers, some old, some young. They picked me up when I fell, and they told me the right things to do when I screwed up. But I don’t think I really learned anything until I had to do it for myself.
In college, no one was there to pick me up or tell me how to fix things. It took me a while, but I actually began to learn from my mistakes. My wife helped, of course, but I still had to convince her that I’d grown up. It probably took a lot longer than it should’ve, but Rome wasn’t built in a day either.
In the summer of 1982, our two-car caravan returned from Knoxville. My first year of college was officially over, and I was home again. Half of my things were in the back of my mother’s station wagon, and half were in the back of my Land Cruiser. The blue and white Toyota might’ve been ugly, but it had far more room than my old Jeep.
At the thought of the Jeep, I felt a surge of anger. I vividly remembered the spray paint and slashed tires and top. I seethed for a moment at the people who’d done it, but then I tried to put things in perspective. Losing my car was trivial compared to losing Gina. She’d been a part of my life for so long that I still felt an ache in the pit of my stomach.
Gina and Regan were already in Los Angeles. They had an apartment, and were enrolled at UCLA for the fall. By some minor miracle—and Gina’s basic good nature—we were still friends. I didn’t particularly like Regan, but we’d made peace with each other.
When I realized I was staring into space, I blinked and focused on the present. Thinking about the past wasn’t going to help. Besides, I had another girlfriend waiting for me in Chattanooga.
She’s my only girlfriend, I reminded myself. Not “another.”
Most guys didn’t have two girlfriends at once. I did—had, at least—for several years. Gina had been my first girlfriend, and Kendall the second. Unfortunately, our three-way bliss came to a drawn out, painful end when Gina and I went to college.
Kendall was ahead of us in school, and had already spent two years at the University of Tennessee. Unfortunately, she hoped Gina would go to UCLA instead of coming to UT. I probably could’ve done more to make peace between the two girls, but I was too wrapped up in my own world. So Gina had made other friends.
With a bitter huff, I realized that I was brooding again. I knew I had to do better, but saying so was a whole lot easier than doing it. I took a deep breath and tried to relax. My parents were looking at me expectantly, so I unbuckled the seatbelt and stepped out of the car.
I’d spent days packing my belongings, but we unloaded both cars in less than an hour. My old bedroom looked strange with my things piled in the middle, as though the room belonged to someone else.
While my dad went to pick up pizza, my mom watered the plants. With a start, I realized that my family had been away from the house for nearly a month already.
Before I went off to college, we spent our summers at a nudist camp. The rest of my family still did, but it hit me that I wasn’t a part of that anymore. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel a major sense of loss. I had plenty of fond memories, but none so strong that I couldn’t leave them in the past.
“Penny for your thoughts,” Mom said as she refilled her watering can. She seemed happy to be home again, if only for a day or two.
“I was just thinking about camp,” I said. “I don’t really miss it as much as I thought I would.” I shrugged. “I mean, I’m looking forward to spending a few days there, but I guess I’m more excited about working on the houses.”
“You’re not a boy anymore.” Mom said. “You’re still playing with blocks, though. They’re just bigger blocks these days.”
I felt my brow furrow.
“Something you did when you were little,” she half-explained.
I rolled my eyes, but I secretly enjoyed her nostalgic expression.
When my dad returned with dinner, we ate quietly. We watched TV for a while, but we were all tired, so we said goodnight and went to bed. I hadn’t slept in my old room in months, and it took me a while to fall asleep. As I stared at the dark ceiling, my thoughts wandered.
I hoped Gina was happy. I knew Kendall was—she had me to herself. I missed her already, but I’d see her in a few days. We wouldn’t have long together, though. After the Fourth of July weekend, I had to leave camp and go to work.
Trip and I would have our hands full with the houses. We had two months to completely renovate all three. He seemed confident, but I had my doubts. I also had a lot of money riding on his confidence, as well as my parents’ trust (not to mention a second mortgage on their house). Still, I trusted Trip more than anyone in the world.
Well, almost anyone, I thought. I trusted Susan, too. We weren’t lovers anymore, and I thought I should feel more disappointed than I did. Sometimes I missed having sex with her, but our relationship had changed. We were more than lovers now. I tried to explain it to myself, but couldn’t.
I felt the same way about Gina, although I couldn’t explain that either. Kendall could probably describe it in psychological terms, but I knew I shouldn’t mention my feelings to her. She had her claws out where Gina was concerned.
In the end, I didn’t really want an explanation. I knew how I felt, which was all that mattered. I loved Susan, and I loved Gina. I was happy that our relationships had moved beyond sex. I didn’t understand it any more than before, but at least I knew that they’d always be part of my life. That gave me more comfort than anything else, and I finally drifted off to sleep.
I didn’t need to pack much for a week at the Pines, so I left most of my things piled in my old bedroom. I threw a pair of shorts and a T-shirt into my backpack, just in case. Then I added my toiletries, my favorite beach towel, and a couple of books (a fraction of my summer reading list). I’d need more of my things for the two months I’d be living with Trip in Franklin, but I didn’t see the need to haul things all the way to South Carolina and back again.
The family plane was still in South Carolina, so I left my car in Atlanta and rode to camp with my parents. Dad and I would fly back to Atlanta when it was time for me to drive to Tennessee. The flight would save me almost five hours on the road. Besides, I’d get some cross-country time.
In the meantime I lounged in the back seat of the station wagon and tried to read. To break the monotony, I offered to drive for a while, but Dad said he was fine. So I stuck my nose back in my book and let the miles roll past.
A couple of hours later, I perked up as I recognized landmarks near the camp. When we finally reached the gate itself, I leapt out and unlocked the chain. The day was hot and muggy—South Carolina in late June. Sweat immediately prickled my brow, and my thoughts raced ahead to the cold water of the lake.
After Dad pulled through the gate, I reattached the lock and hopped into the station wagon. I gazed out the window as we drove down the sandy road to the camp proper. Everything looked the same, but different. The cabins looked smaller and older. They were well-maintained, but they were starting to show their age.
I was still daydreaming when my father parked behind our cabin. Once inside, I threw my backpack onto the top bunk. It had been mine for nearly seven years, but it looked smaller than I remembered. Even the ladder looked shorter.
“We’re heading down to the lake,” my dad said from behind me.
I hadn’t even noticed them getting undressed. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll be down in a few minutes.”
I watched them go. Then I looked at the cabin again. Everything seemed different. With another glance at my departing parents, I realized that my feelings for my mom had also changed. She was still a beautiful woman, but I didn’t think of her in terms of sex anymore.
At one time, she’d been a big part of my fantasy life. She’d even been a part of my actual sex life, although that had been short-lived. I still had fantasies about her, but they were rare. After all, I had a girlfriend who had fantasies enough for both of us. Unfortunately, Kendall and her parents wouldn’t arrive until Saturday. So I had three days to kill. Three days without sex.
I looked at my right hand. “I guess it’s just you and me,” I said. Then I laughed at myself. I sounded like a friend from college, a Cajun who had an unhealthy affection for masturbation. I still jerked off at least once a day, but I didn’t brag about it like he did. After a moment I grinned wryly. “Don’t worry, mon chèr,” I said to my hand, imitating my friend Luke, “I still love you.”
With a laugh, I began shedding my clothes. I could survive three days. No problem.
No problem indeed!
Survival was harder than I thought it’d be.
The camp was over-populated with precocious teenage girls. I barely remembered them, but as ten- and eleven-year-old girls, slim like boys and just as asexual. They’d grown. I guess I’d been so wrapped up in my own life that I hadn’t noticed. The younger boys had grown too, but they hadn’t developed breasts and hips and triangles of pubic hair.
Not surprisingly, I had a hard time keeping my eyes on my book. I wasn’t the only one who suffered, either. Some of the older men spent a lot of time on their stomachs, or swimming in the lake, which was a cold jolt to any daydream. The women simply watched, with a healthy dose of indulgence and thinly veiled amusement. I’m sure they enjoyed the effect on their husbands’ sex drives, though.
But the older men had it easy, since I seemed to be the focus of the younger girls’ attention. I guess it was because I was “the college guy” in a camp where most people were either thirteen or thirty (or forty, or fifty, or ... anything but nineteen). So, when the girls weren’t trying out their new ability to get men’s attention, they flocked around me.
The teenage guys eventually decided that I was all right, so they joined us as well. Believe it or not, we had a lot in common. After all, I listened to the same music, watched the same TV shows, and saw the same movies. And I remembered what it was like to be a teenage guy, awkward and afraid of a sudden hard-on.
Erin and Leah were trying to seem more worldly than sixteen, so they avoided all of us. Besides, Leah still wasn’t speaking to me. She wasn’t rude about it, but she didn’t want to have anything to do with me.
Dwight and Karen Delozier were at camp, but their kids were in Florida with their grandparents. I had no idea where my friend Manfred and his family were. The Tharp twins weren’t in camp, nor were any of my other friends. Even the Raefords wouldn’t arrive until after I’d gone.
So I was thoroughly bored, and easy prey for the younger girls. When I wasn’t watching their antics, I was sitting with them and talking about everyday stuff.
One afternoon we were sitting in a little cluster by the shallow end of the lake, away from everyone else. The boldest girl shot a glance at her friends and then met my eyes. She made me think of a young Susan, full of mischief.
“So,” the girl said, “where’s your girlfriend?”
“She’ll be here tomorrow.”
She frowned. “But I thought her family’s already here. The Coulters, right?”
The light dawned, and I tried to find a delicate way to backpedal.
“He means his other girlfriend,” a second girl said.
“Oh, yeah,” said the first, “I forgot.”
I wondered how the girls knew about Gina and Kendall, but then I shook off the question. I might not have noticed the younger girls over the past few years, but they’d obviously noticed me. On top of that, I probably wasn’t as clever as I thought I was.
“I just have one girlfriend,” I said. It was even true. Now.
“The Indian girl or the one with the big tits?” the first girl asked.
“Or some new girl?” the third girl asked. She tried to look seductive, but she didn’t have enough experience to make it work.
Give her a few years, I thought, and she’ll be leading guys around by the, ahem, nose. “No,” I said aloud, “just Kendall.”
“The one with the big tits,” the first girl said.
“Um ... yeah.”
The guys looked at me with awe. They definitely knew who Kendall was.
“God,” said the second girl, “I hope I get tits like hers someday.”
The other girls giggled. They were teasing the guys, who suddenly turned nervous.
“I probably will,” the second girl continued, glancing down at her chest. She already had a healthy C cup. “I mean, my mom has big tits.”
“Yeah, she does,” said the third girl. “Yours are pretty nice already.” She turned to the guys. “What do you think?”
I tried not to laugh at their expressions.
One of the guys turned red-faced and immediately put his towel in his lap. “I’m thirsty,” he said to the other guys. “Let’s get a Coke or something.” The other two looked just as anxious, so they quickly agreed.
The girls burst into giggles, and I felt sorry for the guys. After all, I knew how they felt. I had more control, but not much more.
“Boner alert,” one of the girls said.
The first girl looked at me, and her eyes glittered. “Now that they’re gone,” she said, “we can talk.” She looked at my dick. She was pretty brazen about it, too. “How come you don’t have a boner?”
I tried to act nonchalant. “I just don’t.”
“But why?” the second girl asked.
“Will you get one for us?” the first asked.
“We won’t tell anyone.”
“C’mon, let us see.”
I laughed, but it sounded hollow. Worse, I was already swelling at the direction the conversation had taken.
“Don’t you think we’re sexy?” the first girl asked.
“I think,” I said evenly, “you’re a lot younger than I am.”
“I’m almost fourteen.”
“I’m fourteen already.”
“I’ll be fourteen in two months.”
“And I just turned nineteen,” I said.
“So? We’re not kids or anything.”
The other girls nodded in unison.
Completely out of the blue, the first girl asked, “What’s it like when you and your girlfriend are doing it?”
My eyebrows flew up. “No comment,” I said at last.
“Sorry, I don’t kiss and tell.”
“We don’t want to hear about the kisses,” one of them wheedled.
“We wanna hear the good parts.”
“Yeah, what’s it like? Does she make a lot of noise?”
“Do you do it all the time?”
“Does she ... you know ... get off?”
I decided to tease right back, so I glanced around to make sure no one could overhear. I looked at them and answered their questions in turn, “No, she doesn’t make a lot of noise. Yes, we do it all the time. And yes, she gets off.”
Their jaws fell open.
I stood. My half-hard dick jutted slightly, although no one but the girls could see. “Now,” I said, “I’m going for a swim.”
The first girl recovered herself. “To hide your boner?”
“To cool off,” I said. I winked, and they burst into giggles.
They were still giggling as I hopped into the water and headed for the raft. Erin and Leah were sunbathing on it, but Leah was a safer bet than three curious young girls. Safer, and much closer to my age.
Sean Sullivan’s family arrived Friday night. He and Erin promptly disappeared. Unfortunately, Sean’s older sister, Maureen, was with Manfred and his family—they’d gone to the Bahamas instead of coming to camp. That left Leah and me in an awkward position: we were the only teenagers in camp who were older than fourteen.
“So, you wanna hang out?” I asked her, hoping to thaw the ice.
She gave me a hard look.
“Come on, it’ll be fun.”
“Yeah, right.” Her eyes turned flinty. “I’m not Gina. Remember?”
“Why are you so pissed off at me?” I said. “I didn’t do anything to you.”
“But you left my sister for that ... that ... cow!”
My eyes widened at her vehemence.
“I never did like her.”
“Who else? She doesn’t love you. All she cares about is sex. Gina loved you more than anyone, but you threw her away like a scrap of paper.”
“It was a bit more complicated than that,” I shot back.
“It was, Leah. Besides, you don’t know what happened.”
“I do too. Gina told me.”
“So you have her side of the story. Let me know if you want to hear my side of things. Maybe then you won’t be such a cold-hearted bitch.” I turned and stalked off. I hadn’t gone ten feet before I heard a slightly mocking voice in my head, “Tsk, tsk, Mr. Hughes. You’ll have to do better than that.”
The voice sounded like Professor Joska, with enough Susan that I didn’t immediately snarl in anger. Instead, I pulled up short and took a deep breath. I could still sense Leah behind me, her eyes burning furious holes in my back. I still felt the adrenaline coursing through my body, too. But I forced myself to take another deep breath. Then I turned and walked back.
“Look,” I said, “I’m sorry I called you a cold-hearted bitch.”
Leah looked surprised, more at my tone than my words.
“You’re just defending your sister,” I continued. “I understand that.” I paused and held her eyes. “I love Gina. I always will. But I don’t need you to tell me how bad I screwed up. She and I are friends now. We put the past behind us and moved on.”
She frowned, but didn’t try to deny it. She knew the truth as well as I did.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to make it up to Gina, but she found it within her heart to forgive me. Now, I’m not going to tell you what to do, Leah, but I hope you can forgive me someday too.” It was her opening, but she didn’t say anything, so I turned away.
“Paul ... wait.”
I stopped and stood there for a moment. Then I turned.
Leah looked at me, and her anger seemed to fade. She started to speak, but then fell silent. After a moment she said, “Do you still want to hang out?”
“Yeah. I’d like that.”
Erin spent the next day with Sean. I had no idea where they were, but I knew what they were doing.
When Erin had turned sixteen, she started taking the pill. She and Sean had fooled around before then, but they hadn’t had sex. They’d fooled around since then too, but without going all the way.
Erin once told me that she didn’t want her first time to be in the back of a car, or groping in the dark, or in a rush. “I want to take my time and enjoy it,” she said.
She’d grown up as a nudist, so she was completely comfortable with her body. With women like Mom, Susan, and Elizabeth Coulter for role models, I didn’t wonder that she had a strong sense of her own sexuality. Not surprisingly, she and Sean had waited for the right time.
The right time had arrived. I remembered Gina’s first time with me, and the love and support she received from the older women. With Erin, I saw things from the other side, as the women waited for her to return. I asked Susan where they’d gone, but she merely smiled.
“If Erin wants to tell you, she will,” she said. “After all, we didn’t tell her about you and Gina.”
“Mmm hmm. But we respected your privacy.”
I smiled at the memory of Susan’s glade. Gina and I had spent the day there, making love, having sex, and generally screwing each other silly. Susan smirked as my dick twitched. With an act of will, I controlled it.
“How long till the Paytons arrive?” she teased.
“Not soon enough,” I grumbled.
She merely chuckled.
Sometimes life just isn’t fair.
I nearly attacked Kendall when she arrived. Fortunately, she seemed just as eager. Unfortunately, I had to be polite to her parents. After all, her father—a big, tough police detective—scared me a little. Besides, I couldn’t just drag her away, caveman-style, and fuck her behind some bushes.
Kendall’s brother was already in summer school at UT, so I helped her father with the Winnebago’s leveling jacks. Then I helped him take the folding lawn chairs from the back rack. Finally, I watched in near-exasperation as he put his arm around Kendall’s shoulders and walked with her to the clubhouse to check in.
I stared after them until they turned onto the main road and disappeared from sight. Then I composed myself and tried not to think about what I was going to do to Kendall when she returned. It didn’t work. I felt my dick swelling, so I cast about for something to distract me.
Unfortunately, Kendall’s mother was bustling about the campsite, humming quietly to herself. Melissa was the prototype of her daughter, just as tall and beautiful, and built like a goddess. While I’d been staring after Kendall and her father, Melissa had taken off her shorts. My eyes followed her, and I felt my dick swell further as she bent over to pull something from the Winnebago’s storage compartment.
“Will you help me with the chair cushions?” she asked without looking back.
If she noticed my semi-hard dick, she didn’t say anything. Instead, we both ignored it. When she sat down and offered me a seat, I quickly took it, crossing my legs to hide my condition.
“Thanks for helping with everything,” she said. “Would you like to stay for dinner?”
No, thank you, I silently answered. I’d like to take your daughter someplace quiet and fuck her till— “Sure,” I said aloud, “that’d be nice. Thanks.”
We made small talk until Kendall and Adam returned.
“We’re officially here,” he said.
Fortunately, my dick had gone soft. I pasted on a smile and then caught Kendall’s eye. She had the same look in hers that I had in mine.
“Paul’s going to have dinner with us,” Melissa said.
“Good!” Adam boomed.
“Before then,” Kendall said, “may Paul and I... ?”
Melissa smiled indulgently. “Go on.”
We didn’t make it further than my cabin. Fortunately, my parents were down at the lake, and Erin hadn’t returned from ... wherever.
My dick was completely hard before the screen door slammed shut. I pulled Kendall against me and reveled in the softness of her body. She was already topless, but I quickly unsnapped her cut-off shorts. She kicked them aside and we tumbled to the couch.
She felt for my cock and squeezed gently, grinning up at me as she set the head at her opening. She was already hot and oh-so-wet. I slid into her slowly. She was as tight as ever, and it took me a moment to bury myself completely.
I groaned when I hit bottom. “God, I missed you.”
Instead of answering, she pulled my head down and kissed me fiercely. Then she ground her hips against mine and whimpered.
I began thrusting. I felt the pressure of an impending orgasm, but I didn’t even try to stop it. Five or six thrusts later, I slammed into her and arched my back. She moaned softly as I spurted deep within her.
When I finally came to my senses, I swallowed hard and gazed down at her. Her deep blue eyes sparkled.
“Hi yourself,” she teased.
“Sorry that was so quick.”
She shrugged and adjusted her legs around me for a better angle. “Oh, I know how you work. You’ll be ready again in a few minutes.”
With that, she began working her pussy muscles. I grunted as she massaged my still-hard cock.
“You’ve been practicing with your Ben Wa balls,” I finally gasped.
“Mmm hmm. You don’t mind, do you?”
I closed my eyes and shook my head. My dick grew harder still.
“Mmm. You feel good inside me.”
I nodded without opening my eyes. “It feels pretty good from this end, too.”
She ran her fingers along my sides and down to my hips. “Fuck me, Paul,” she whispered. “Fuck me deep.”
Who was I to refuse?
Erin and Sean returned shortly before dinner. They both looked worn out, but happy. Ecstatic, actually. I had probably looked the same when Gina and I returned. Erin surprised me by glancing at me after she talked to Mom and Susan.
“What’s up?” I said as she pulled me aside.
“I promised Sean that we’d hike to the quarry with Leah tomorrow. He wants to have sex with both of us, and since I’m such a great girlfriend...”
“Anyway, Sean’s parents know about us, but they don’t know about us. You know... us?“
“Duh,” Erin said. “‘Us, ‘ as in our family ... that we’re swingers ... you know, group sex?”
I’m sure my cheeks heated, because Erin took pity on me and smiled.
“Anyway, I thought you and Kendall could go with us, so it wouldn’t be just Sean, Leah, and me. We could call it a nature hike or something.”
“Or something,” I teased.
Erin was as tanned as our mom, but her cheeks turned rosy anyway. “Will you go?”
“Sure. But I wanna be back in time for the fireworks.”
“Duh,” she said. Then her expression softened. “Thanks, Paul.”
She paused and looked thoughtful for a moment. “Was it like this with you and Gina and Kendall?”
“Everybody getting along and all?”
I shrugged. “In the beginning, at least.”
I woke up early the next morning. It was still dark outside, and I wondered what had woken me. Then I heard a soft sound, so I quietly looked over the bedrail. In the darkness I could just make out the shapes of my parents in bed.
Mom disappeared beneath the sheet and Dad rested his hand lightly atop her head. She began moving, and I knew that she was sucking him. All of a sudden I had a memory of what it felt like when she sucked me.
I rolled to my back, my own erection making a tent under the sheet. I thought about jerking off, but I didn’t want them to know that I was awake. I listened for a while, but then I rolled toward the wall and folded the pillow over my head. My erection didn’t go away, but at least I couldn’t hear them anymore.
I was still awake thirty minutes later, so I decided to get up. I didn’t know if Mom and Dad were asleep or not, but they were spooned together and their breathing was quiet.
Pre-dawn light showed in the east as I slipped out of the cabin. I sat in one of the rocking chairs and tried to relax as the pine forest came to life around me. My thoughts wandered until the screen door creaked behind me.
“What’re you doing out here?” Mom asked.
“I couldn’t sleep,” I lied.
She crossed her arms and rubbed her hands over them to warm herself. Her nipples were stiff, and the rest of her had goose bumps. Still, she sat in the opposite rocker and gazed at me thoughtfully.
“It looks like it’s going to be a nice day for your hike.”
“Thanks for going with Erin.”
I nodded again. For whatever reason, I wasn’t in a talkative mood.
“She’s really excited. She and Leah were up half the night talking about it.”
“I’m worried about her, though.”
I looked a question at her.
“It’s hard to make a relationship work. Especially with three people.”
“Tell me about it,” I said, speaking at last.
“I knew you’d understand.”
“I don’t think that’s what Erin wants, though,” I said. “Besides, she’s smarter than I was.”
“But what about Sean? Having two women is a big turn-on for most guys, whether they’re sixteen or not.”
I shrugged. “If he thinks with his big head...”
“Too bad I didn’t.”
“It’s hard enough to make one relationship work,” she said, “much less two.”
I shrugged in reply.
“You found out the hard way.”
“Does it get any easier with just two people?”
“A little,” she said. “Maybe.”
“It’s worth it, though, especially with the right person.”
“But how do you know if you’ve found the right person?”
“If you have to ask... , “ she began, but trailed off.
I looked at her sharply.
For once, she equivocated. “It’s not quite that simple, but—”
“You were going to say, ‘If you have to ask, you haven’t found the right person, ‘ weren’t you?”
“Sometimes it takes a while before you feel it.”
“How long did it take you with Dad?”
“That’s different,” she said.
She smiled by way of answer. Then she rose and kissed me on the forehead. “You’ll know when it happens,” she said, and slipped into the cabin.
I gripped the arms of the chair and stared into the forest.
Kendall emerged from the Winnebago a little before seven o’clock. We walked down to the clubhouse together. A light mist hung over the ground, but it would burn off as soon as the sun rose higher. Sound carried in the fog, so I made sure not to let the screen door slam as we entered the building. At the wall dividing the bathroom area from the kitchen, Kendall pulled up short.
“What?” I asked softly. Then I poked my head around the corner.
Dwight Delozier was mixing his barbecue sauce for the day’s cookout. He did the same thing every Fourth of July, and he—
I felt a sudden glow of understanding. Ah. Of course, I thought. And I know who’s under the counter giving him a blowjob. Terri Dunbar.
Terri and her husband were swingers—although they weren’t part of my parents’ regular group. Dwight and his wife were also swingers. They usually partied with the Dunbars, but sometimes the two groups got together for bigger, wilder parties.
Dwight and Terri’s Fourth of July blowjobs were an open secret among the camp’s swingers. She’d even given me a blowjob once, when I was fifteen.
“We need to do something like that,” Kendall said softly.
I couldn’t agree more, I thought. I could use a blowjob right now. I cast about for someplace private.
“We could have our own special tradition,” Kendall continued, “where everyone else knows what we’re up to.”
My heart sank as I realized that we were thinking about two different things.
“Maybe I could give you head on the raft every Fourth of July.”
I shook my head. “I don’t wanna swim out there first thing in the morning. But, speaking of—”
“Okay, we could do it by the hot tub. Or maybe the clubhouse porch.”
I was horny and peeved at the same time. I wanted to go somewhere private, but she wanted to talk about her public sex fantasy.
“Or we could do it on the grass by the—”
“Yeah, that’s a good idea,” I cut her off. Then I turned facetious. “I could tie you down, spread-eagle, and fuck you while the rest of the camp watches.” I wasn’t serious, but her eyes lit up, so I put a hint of mocking in my voice. “That’d be perfect. The guys could even take turns fucking you, one after the other.”
She didn’t hear the irony. Instead, her eyes turned glassy as she imagined the scene.
I frowned in disbelief. “Heck,” I said, “even the women could join in. I mean, they could go down on you while their husbands fuck them from behind.” When she still didn’t react, I decided to be even more outrageous. “Even better, I could fuck the women. And you could suck the guys while I go to town on their wives.”
“And the guys could come on my face,” she said.
“Sure,” I said, still incredulous. “And for the big finale, I’ll fuck your sperm-covered face until I blew my load all over you. That sounds perfect. We could have a TV crew film the whole thing. I bet Chris Coulter could even broadcast it on the news. I mean, it is cable.”
She finally sensed that I was being flippant. “No, not on TV.”
I nearly goggled in shock. TV was the only thing she objected to?!
“The rest sounds like fun, though.” She thought about it again. “No, I don’t want anything like that on TV.”
“No, of course not,” I said dryly. “But maybe your dad and brother could join in.”
Finally, she shot me a look of reproach. “Now you’re being disgusting.”
No, I thought crossly, I was being disgusting when I suggested that the whole camp fuck you on the front lawn of the clubhouse. I didn’t mind sharing my girlfriend, even with more than one guy, but two dozen guys wasn’t sharing—it was a gang bang.
“Although,” she said, her eyes still a bit glassy, “it’s a fun fantasy.”
I rolled my eyes, but she didn’t notice.
Thirty minutes later, Sean and I shouldered our backpacks, and I led the way across the dam and into the forest. Kendall walked behind me, with Leah in the middle, Erin behind her, and Sean bringing up the rear.
About an hour into the hike, we stopped to rest and drink from the stream. The water was clear and cold, and felt good on my parched throat. When we set off again, Kendall struck up a conversation with Erin.
The topic quickly turned to sex. Poor Sean didn’t know how to react when they started talking about blowjob techniques. At first, he tried to hide his hard-on.
“Don’t worry about it,” Erin told him. “I like it. Besides, Paul has one too.”
I turned to walk backward. When I looked at Sean, he glanced away, abashed. My dick swayed as I felt a root and stepped over it. Kendall shot me a glance and moistened her lips seductively. I grinned before giving Sean a philosophical shrug.
With that, I turned and continued up the hill. The conversation resumed, but I didn’t pay much attention. Instead, I focused on the trail as it wound its way along the stream.
Leah caught up with me a few minutes later. “She’s ignoring me,” she said under her breath. “The cow.”
I glanced at her sidelong.
“Every time I try to join the conversation, Kendall just keeps talking, like I didn’t say anything.”
“I’m sure she’s not doing it on purpose.”
Leah shot me a skeptical glance.
“Why would she ignore you? She likes you.”
“She does,” I said.
Leah muttered something and sped ahead.
We reached the quarry a little before ten o’clock. The day was already hot, and the fog had turned to a thin haze high above. I shed my pack by the big boulder at the mouth of the run-off stream. Across the lake the waterfall looked like a cool shower.
I closed my eyes and pictured the pool above. Gina, Kendall, and I had spent many afternoons up there. Kendall had even lost her virginity there, although I hadn’t known at the time that I was her first. She’d told me she wasn’t a virgin, and I believed her. Why wouldn’t I? The memory was a pleasant one, though, and I replayed it in my mind until an errant bead of sweat ran down my forehead.
“Let’s go for a swim,” I suggested.
Sean shed his pack and looked grateful. His dick was still semi-hard, but he seemed less self-conscious about it. Erin, on the other hand, was eyeing him hungrily. She looked like a tigress, ready to pounce.
Poor Sean. He won’t know what hit him.
We swam to the center of the lake and then Sean and I struck out for the falls while the girls headed back to the boulder. None of them were especially strong swimmers, and they were tired after the long hike. Sean was probably tired as well, but he hung in there. I barely felt winded, and I enjoyed the weightless feeling of floating on my back as the waterfall splashed nearby.
The girls were waiting, so I eventually turned and began swimming back to them. Sean trailed after me. He wasn’t the same as Manfred, but it was nice to have another guy along. As the lake bottom rose to meet us, we waded ashore.
Kendall stretched languidly, her heavy breasts swaying as she raised her arms above her head and stood on tiptoe. Her silver waist chain glinted in the sunlight, and droplets of water shone like jewels on her stomach and thighs. Her tan lines stood out and made her even sexier, since I knew I was seeing something most other people didn’t.
I let my eyes wander to Leah. She was just as dark as ever, especially after spending several weeks at camp. Her half-Indian complexion started as café au lait and darkened from there. She reminded me of Gina, although she was thinner than her sister. Her breasts were smaller, but still round and firm. Her pubic hair was wispy and black, and I knew from experience how soft it was.
Finally, I glanced at Erin. She was a young version of our mom, although much slimmer through the hips. Her breasts weren’t as big, but she hadn’t had two children, either. Her pubic hair was dark blonde, and neatly trimmed. Unlike me, she tanned easily, and her skin was a dark bronze. Her complexion made her blonde hair stand out, especially since it turned the color of straw after a week in the sun.
“Nice, huh?” I said to Sean, with a nod toward the girls.
He merely grinned. The distraction of swimming had left his dick limp, but judging by the look Erin was giving him, he wouldn’t stay that way for long. Leah also looked eager. Much to my surprise, I felt a stab of envy.
Leah and I had had sex before, but not since Gina and I split up. Unfortunately, I didn’t see it happening again anytime soon. I shook off the thought and glanced at all three girls.
“What?” I asked, teasing them. “No more blowjob techniques?” I included Sean with a glance. “We were kind of enjoying that.”
“You sure looked like you were,” Erin shot back. “But what happened? The water wasn’t that cold, not-so-big brother.”
I barked a laugh. “I’ll show you big.” Kendall’s expression changed, so I let my next come-back die unspoken.
Erin caught the shift, and her grin faded.
“Hey, Sean,” I said, “do you mind if Kendall and I go up to the pool by the falls? It’s kinda special. You know.”
He looked uncertain for a second, but then swelled with a mixture of pride and machismo. I think he was happy that I treated him like an equal. I remembered how it felt at sixteen to have an older guy talk to me like that.
“Sure,” he said.
“Thanks. We’ll probably just have lunch up there.” I cleared my throat. “We’ll warn y’all if we come down. All right?”
With that, I shouldered my backpack and gestured for Kendall to follow.
The top of the falls looked just as I remembered. The pool seemed smaller, but everything looked different lately.
Maybe it’s not the places and things, I mused. Maybe I’m different.
Kendall spread our blanket about ten feet from the pool. The trees would shade us in the afternoon, but the spot would be in full sunlight until then. With a come-hither look, she slowly sank to her knees and sat back on her heels. She moistened her lips and I felt my dick twitch. She smiled as I walked toward her.
“What did you have in mind?” I asked, my erection mere inches from her face.
“What would you say to a little fellatio?”
I mocked her: “I’d say, ‘Hi, little fellatio.’” I might’ve been in a mischievous mood, but I knew a good thing when I saw it, so I stepped closer.
She gazed up at me, her deep blue eyes full of lust. She pursed her lips and kissed the crown of my cock. “Hi, little fellatio?”
She opened her mouth and captured the tip of my dick. Then she moaned softly as I grew harder still. She swallowed until she had half of my dick in her mouth. Then she pulled back, her lips pursed around my shaft.
I groaned softly and put my hand on the back of her head. She opened her mouth, and I gently pulled her head toward me, impaling her on my cock. Her lips closed about two inches from the base. Then I felt her tongue moving against the bottom of my shaft.
“Oh, that’s nice,” I breathed.
Her eyes grinned up at me. Then she concentrated as she pulled back, teasing the crown with her tongue as she let me slip from her lips. She turned her head and nuzzled my balls. They were still drawn tight from the cold water, but she warmed them with her lips and tongue.
I gasped when she engulfed my cock again, almost to the root. She couldn’t quite swallow me completely, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. I watched her suck me for a moment, and then I gazed down at the creamy expanse of her breasts. They swayed as she began bobbing back and forth.
I’d been horny all morning, so I didn’t last long. Instead of coming in her mouth, I decided to give her a treat. I pulled my glistening shaft from her lips and began stroking myself. She knew what I was doing, so she closed her eyes and raised her face.
I exploded, and the first spurt splashed across her forehead. The next landed along her nose and cheek. The last two spurts coated her lips and chin. A few stray drops dotted her breasts and the tops of her thighs, but she didn’t seem to care. She opened her mouth and captured my cock. I was still too sensitive, so I pulled back and used it to rub my semen into her skin.
When we recovered enough to move, I helped her to her feet and led her to the pool.
“I should be ready for round two in a little while,” I said. “And since the water is so cold, I’ll want someplace warm to put my cock.”
“I know just the place.”
“I thought you might.”
We sank to our necks in the swirling water. She tilted her head back and dipped into the water, rinsing my semen from her face. When she emerged, her eyes glowed with anticipation. I pulled her close and she wrapped her legs around me.
Her lips found mine, and our kisses were tender. Her body felt warm against mine, especially with the current flowing around us, and my dick responded. Her pussy was even hotter, a sharp contrast with the spring-fed pool.
She gasped when I slid into her. “Your dick’s cold.”
“Then we’d better heat it up.”
She nodded and closed her eyes. Then she tilted her head and our lips met again. She whimpered when her thighs met my hips. Then she wrapped her legs even tighter around me. I gripped her ass, her flesh soft under my fingers.
We rocked together gently, and her breathing grew heavier. I pulled her cheeks apart and teased her anus with a finger. The temperature in her pussy went up, so I did it again. She groaned and began grinding against me.
Slowly, I buried my finger in her ass, up to the second knuckle. Her sphincter gripped me, and I used the leverage to thrust deep within her. She came, hard, her body shuddering as she clung to me. I continued thrusting, so she buried her face in my neck and simply held on.
Her orgasm subsided, but she whimpered each time I jerked my hips forward. Her pussy was slick and hot, and I could feel my own orgasm building in my balls. I pulled my finger from her ass and gripped her hips. Her breasts flattened against my chest as she clutched me tighter.
With one final thrust, I buried myself as deep as I could and felt the torrent of semen coursing up my shaft. My cock pulsed with a second spurt, and Kendall moaned as she felt it. The spurts finally dwindled to gushes and we held each other tightly, the water flowing past us to spill over the lip of the falls.
Kendall had brought her huge MCAT study guide. It was the size of a family bible, but it contained everything she’d need to know in order to pass the med-school admission exam. After lunch she rolled to her stomach and flipped open the book.
I’d brought along my book as well, but I wasn’t in a reading mood. So I rolled to my side and ran a finger along her back. After a moment I gently cupped the swell of her ass. When she didn’t react, I dipped my finger between her legs. She merely smiled at me over her shoulder. Then she returned to her book and highlighted a passage.
I suppressed a frown. She couldn’t possibly be worn out—we’d only had sex once, not counting the blowjob. But I was ready to go again, and she wasn’t in the mood. I thought about huffing impatiently. I even thought about making a pointed comment or two. But then I took a deep breath. She couldn’t be in the mood all the time. Besides, I could survive an hour without sex.
Heck, I might even survive two hours, if I’m lucky.
I silently laughed at myself. Then I stood and headed toward the pool. The cold water took care of my erection. I splashed around for a few minutes, watching the ripples disappear over the falls. Then I climbed onto the big rock at the rim of the cliff. It was hot from the sun, and smelled of earth. I settled onto it and let the warmth seep into my body.
Down below, Sean was on his back, with Erin straddling his face while Leah sucked his dick. I’d been in the same position with Gina and Kendall—plenty of times.
At the thought, I glanced at Kendall. She was still intent on her book, so I studied her for a moment. Brown legs led to a white butt, which glistened with cocoa butter. Her waist chain broke the long expanse of her brown back. It had been a gift when I was ... fifteen? Sixteen? I’d given Gina an anklet at the same time. We’d all had matching rings with our initials on them, too. P-G-K ‘80.
That summer seemed like a lifetime ago. Kendall didn’t wear her ring anymore. Gina still wore hers, but on a silver chain around her neck. I couldn’t wear mine. Not physically, at least. It would cause too many problems with Kendall.
I turned from her and gazed down at the threesome below. After a moment I crossed my arms and rested my chin. I sighed at the memory of what it had been like to be that carefree and happy. Then I forced a smile and looked back at Kendall.
I did love her, even if I didn’t like some of the things she did. And she definitely loved me. Still, I couldn’t help but think of what might have happened if I hadn’t been so thick-headed. At that, I snorted softly.
Self-absorbed is more like it. Self-absorbed and clueless.
I rolled to my back, careful not to touch any more of the hot rock than I had to. Then I laced my fingers behind my head and closed my eyes. The sun felt good on my body, so I lay there quietly for several minutes.
My thoughts eventually turned to Erin and Leah, and what kind of workout Sean was likely to get over the next few days. I’d done the same thing, of course, but not recently.
I wallowed in self-pity for a minute or two, but then braced myself. What did I have to complain about? I had a beautiful girlfriend who was sexy and smart and full of fantasies, no matter how over-the-top some of them were. I had a pretty good life, too. I had the houses to look forward to, and school in the fall. I wasn’t looking forward to Professor Joska, but even he was good for me.
So I’d lost a girl I loved. It wasn’t the end of the world. Besides, Gina and I were still friends. We still talked, and we still cared about each other. She wouldn’t want me to mope, either. She’d want me to go on with my life.
I cracked an eyelid and shielded my eyes as I glanced at Kendall. I rose from the rock and stepped into the pool. The water felt good after the heat of the sun, so I waded deeper and sank to my neck. The water flowed around me, clean and clear. I submerged completely and felt the heat seep out of my hair. After a moment I broke the surface and took a quiet breath. Then I slicked back my hair and wiped my eyes.
My gaze settled on Kendall and I felt my penis swell with desire. I rose from the water and walked, dripping, toward the blanket. Heedless of my wet skin, I stood over her legs for a moment. She felt the cold droplets and glanced back at me. I sank to my knees and sat on her thighs.
“Oh my goodness,” she gasped. “You’re cold!”
“I’ll warm you up,” I said. Without waiting for a reply, I leaned forward and held myself above her. I kissed her shoulder and inhaled the scent of her, a mixture of cocoa butter, sweat, and her shampoo. Then I brushed her hair out of the way to plant a line of kisses along her neck.
“Oh, you’re still cold.”
“You’ll get used to it,” I said as I scooted forward. My erection nudged her thighs and she tried to squirm away. I was too close to her, and she couldn’t rise without touching even more of my cold skin.
“Paul, I need to study.”
Between kisses, I said, “You can study later.” I reached the back of her ear and felt her sag with pleasure. I blew gently and then kissed the shell-like lobe.
She shivered, but didn’t protest.
I pressed my hips against the warm curve of her ass. My erection probed between her legs, and I welcomed the heat washing over it. She closed her book and shoved it away, as much to protect it from my dripping hair as to get it out of the way.
I smiled and trailed a line of kisses down her neck. She moaned softly, and I pressed my hips into her. With my body full against her, she whimpered with growing pleasure.
I continued kissing for several minutes, until she crossed her arms and laid her cheek on them. I rose and aimed my dick at the junction of her thighs. Then I set the tip of my cock at her opening, and she lifted her hips. Her pussy was wet and ready.
I slid into her slowly, spreading her open with my girth. When my hips finally ground against her ass, she groaned again, but didn’t move. I began thrusting slowly, working myself into her with a deliberate tempo.
“I love you,” I whispered in her ear.
She smiled. “I love you too.”
“Do you love my cock?”
“More than your book?”
“A lot more.”
“How much more?”
“I don’t want it inside me.”
“I thought that’s what you were trying to do,” I teased. “Get it inside you.”
“In my head. I want you for the rest of me.”
“So you don’t mind that I’m cold?”
“You’re not cold anymore.”
“That’s ‘cause you’re so”—I thrust deep and held myself within her—”hot.”
I ground my hips side-to-side, my shaft gripped tight in her channel.
She groaned again and pressed back with her ass.
“Do you want me to come inside you?” I asked.
With a low sigh, almost another groan, she nodded.
I began thrusting again, my cock moving between her thighs in a slow rhythm. I took my time, and even stopped twice to stave off impending orgasms.
I was still thrusting slowly when I felt her inner muscles begin to flutter with the first signs of her own orgasm. When I angled my hips, she made a wordless sound and clutched the blanket.
I moved inside her, my urgency growing with each thrust. I knew her body’s signals, and her climax would arrive first, but not by much. With another thrust, I felt her pussy clench around my shaft. I drove into her and then pulled back. Heat and moisture assaulted my cock as I filled her again, and she arched her back in silent ecstasy.
I thrust a second time and then a third. Pleasure spread through my body as I pumped again. With a grunt, I buried myself as deep as I could. The soft cushion of her ass pressed against my stomach, and a tide of sensation rolled over me as semen gushed from my shaft in waves.
She let out a long sigh and sagged to the blanket.
I collapsed atop her, my breathing heavy as my cock began to shrink within her.
“That was...” She faltered, at a loss for words.
“Great,” I finished.
She merely nodded.
“I love you,” I said softly, my lips close to her ear.
She pressed back against me. “I love you too.”
The hike back to camp was much quieter than the hike out. As we crossed the dam, the group of teenage girls took one look at us and burst into whispered conversation. Kendall noticed, and twined her fingers through mine. We shared an indulgent smile.
Dwight had just begun to serve barbecue when we reached the clubhouse. We ditched our backpacks inside and joined the others for dinner. The whole camp was there, young and old. I knew most of the people, if only by sight, but I saw several new faces as well.
Kendall and I struck up a conversation with a new couple. They were only a few years older than us, but they already had a year-old son. Kendall and the woman took turns holding the boy, or watching him crawl on a blanket. The husband and I talked about life at camp.
When the sun set we headed down to the lake for fireworks. Sean and I lit sparklers and passed them out to the crowd. Then we joined the older men to shoot Roman candles and launch rockets. The crowd oohed and aahed as each burst overhead, red and green and gold and more.
Finally, we gathered our best rockets and launched the finale. I gazed up as the last of them exploded above us, showering the lake with colored sparks. It didn’t seem as spectacular as when I’d first been a part of it, years before. Now, it just seemed quaint.
My dad clapped me on the shoulder as though we’d finished a Macy’s fireworks show. Chris and Dwight were just as pleased. I knew I shouldn’t feel so blasé about our show, especially compared to the expensive professional ones, but I couldn’t help myself.
Life in camp was quaint, and slow, and kind of homey. After all, the crowd was cheering about fifty dollars’ worth of fireworks. It all seemed so ... small time. Even Kendall was laughing with delight as she held our new friends’ little boy and pointed at the lingering sparks.
“Why aren’t you celebrating?” Susan said from close beside me.
I looked at her in surprise for a moment—I hadn’t heard her approach. Finally, I said, “Do you really want to know?”
“I wouldn’t have asked if I didn’t.”
I paused for a moment, but decided to be honest. “It all seems so ... quaint.”
She cocked her head to the side, silently inviting me to continue.
I struggled to find the right words. “It’s so small time.” I gestured at the crowd and the drifting smoke. “This was nothing. Not compared to a big show. But these people are cheering like they’ve just seen the best show ever.”
“That’s why people come here,” she said.
It was my turn to look a question at her.
“They come to get away from life, from everyday concerns, from the big-time fireworks shows of the world.”
I raised a skeptical eyebrow.
“This might seem quaint to you, now that you’ve had a taste of the wide world, but these people live there every day. They have jobs and mortgage payments and PTA meetings. They have real-world concerns, and real-world problems. But those concerns don’t exist here, at least for a time.” She paused to let her words sink in. “Here, people can look up at a small-time fireworks show and see the wonder of it all. They can relax and enjoy themselves, without all the hard choices real life has a way of throwing at you.”
“Real life doesn’t seem so bad.”
“Tell me that when you’ve lived it for a while.”
“I live it every day. I have a job and a mortgage payment,” I said. “I may not have PTA meetings, but I have a lot of responsibility.”
“So you do,” she agreed reasonably, “but you’re new to it. The real test isn’t how you stand up to pressure the first time. The test is how you deal with it over time. It’s not easy to be an adult.”
“Tell me about it.”
Much to my surprise, she laughed, bright and cheerful.
I shot her a hard look.
“Oh, you don’t know the half of it.” She looked at me, still smiling, and put a hand on my arm. “And I have news for you—it doesn’t get any easier.”
“So why do it?”
Instead of answering, she pointed at my father and sister. They were talking and celebrating with everyone else. He had his arm around her, and she was looking up at him with an expression full of pride.
I had no idea what Susan wanted me to see. “What?”
“Can you imagine how your father feels right now?”
I shrugged. When she didn’t say anything else, I took her seriously and thought about her question. Did he enjoy having Erin next to him? Did he enjoy the fireworks? Did he enjoy the other people’s attention?
Susan read my confusion. “Someday you’ll understand.”
“That’s up to you.” With that, she smiled again and went to mingle with the crowd.
I stared after her for a long time.
The next day, I packed my few belongings. Kendall and I spent some time together after breakfast, but then we had to head to the airport. My dad drove, while my mom rode in the front seat and Kendall and I sat in the back.
Kendall was in an odd mood. I attributed part of it to my leaving, but a part of me didn’t want to admit the other reason for her nervousness. She was afraid of flying, and she didn’t like me to do it either. I didn’t understand her fear, but we didn’t talk about it much.
She held me for a long time at the airport. I felt guilty that I wasn’t helping my dad preflight the plane, but I couldn’t very well abandon my girlfriend.
“Be careful,” she said at last.
“I always am.” Being careless is a quick way to die, I thought, although I was smart enough not to tell her that.
“Call Susan when you get home, so I know you’re safe.”
I fought not to roll my eyes. “Kendall, we’ll be fine.”
“I know, I just...”
I controlled my temper and pulled her close. Even in clothes, her lush body felt good next to mine. “I’ll call when we get to Atlanta,” I said. “Then I’ll call again when I get to Trip’s house. Okay?”
She seemed satisfied.
“Now, I need to help my dad with the weight and balance.”
She nodded, albeit reluctantly.
I kissed her quickly and turned to the Cessna.
“Everything all right?” my dad asked quietly.
I nodded. The “weight and balance” was a complete fib. With only two of us in the plane, and minimal luggage, we didn’t need to do any real calculations. It was simply a technical-sounding ruse to keep Kendall from worrying anymore. I tried not to roll my eyes again, but her irrational dread got to me sometimes.
I managed to relax by the time Dad and I finished all our preflight checks. I loaded my backpack into the luggage compartment and secured it with a bungee cord. Then I went back to the car, where my mom and Kendall were waiting.
We said a few quiet goodbyes, and I hugged her one last time. I spared a quick hug and kiss for Mom. She smiled, ever composed—she’d said goodbye to my father countless times.
Why can’t Kendall be more like her?
I tried to hide my frustration as I climbed into the plane. Instead of brooding, I took a deep breath to focus. Then I went through the engine start checklist. I finally relaxed at the familiar routine. Taxi and takeoff were equally routine. I waggled the wings as we passed the FBO, and saw Mom wave in reply. Kendall’s wave was half-hearted and tentative.
With a sigh, I banked away and set course for Atlanta.