Stephanie lay in bed, staring at the black of the window. Somewhere in that darkness, her little girl wandered, lost, at the mercy of her youth, her escalating hormones and her growing libido. Even before Chuck suddenly disappeared from their lives, Ashley started exhibiting these rebellious tendencies. Chuck had the magic touch with her. When she threw tantrums and demanded to attend rock concerts or stay out past midnight, Chuck had a way of gently speaking with her and coaching her back to more levelheaded behavior.
Now, without Chuck to rein his middle daughter, Stephanie had no way of knowing where she was, who she was with or what she was doing. Her call to Ursula’s mother went unanswered. E-mail, Facebook, even her daughter’s Instagram all held her current whereabout as secrets, locked away from the nervous mother who sat on her bed in fear for her 16-year-old daughter’s innocence.
As she scrolled through Ashley’s Instagram feed, Rupert texted her.
“Had an idea about my fees,” he said. “Can explain tomorrow morning over breakfast after the girls go to school?”
Stephanie closed the Instagram window, depressed at the skimpy clothes and rambunctious poses her daughter routinely posted, and returned Rupert’s text.
“What idea?” she asked.
“Sure,” she replied. “Why the hell not… :)”
The buzz of the phone warmed her hand and she rolled her thumb over Rupert’s face to open the line.
“Hey,” Rupert said in a soft voice as if he had just settled into bed for the night. “I hate to impose on you. If you’d rather…”
“It’s fine,” Stephanie said. “You can reach me any time. I appreciate all your help and support.”
“I’ll get right to it,” he said. “I decided that I’m not going to charge you for my services.”
“What?” Stephanie asked.
“I know you’re under a lot of pressure,” he said, in a soothing voice. “We can settle at the end when all’s set and done.”
“You don’t have to…”
“I want to,” he continued. “We’re going to find a way to turn this around. I’ll write legal reviews and articles. I can make money that way once we secure a landmark victory. We’re probably at a point where we should think about a media strategy. I can recoup some of my fees with paid appearances.”
“I don’t want to…”
“We’re going to have to go to the press with this sooner or later to gain support and pressure the courts,” Rupert said. “The free PR alone will be well worth my investment of time.”
“I’ve got it covered,” Stephanie said. “Between my parents and…”
“I know,” Rupert said. “I spoke with your father about the charges to date, which are all settled.”
“I don’t want to…”
“Listen,” Rupert said. “With my divorce and how the settlement is going, the less income I have the better. This is good for me as well.”
“Sounds tough,” Stephanie said, while simultaneously double-checking Ashley’s Instagram feeds. “I’m so sorry to hear it. It must be awful.”
“It’s a grind,” Rupert said. “But it’s been nice working with you to help get my mind off my own problems.”
“We’re some pair, aren’t we?”
“I guess so,” Rupert chuckled. “What’s the drama at your place tonight?”
“Well, my 16-year-old daughter is out somewhere with a 19-year-old college frat boy and I don’t know where she is.”
“Try her phone?”
“Of course. She conveniently left it at home.”
“Oh, no,” Rupert said, slightly muffled. “They never do that.”
“I tried Facebook, Instagram…”
“Snapchat?” Rupert asked. “They never think parents are watching Snapchat.”
“Good advice counselor,” Stephanie said, accessing her Snap icon. “There she is, in her friend’s living room, with a bunch of her classmates. There she is with the guy. He’s got his arm around her.”
Stephanie scrolled through pictures of Ashley in Ursula’s kitchen eating a plate of nachos and in her television room, surrounded by her friends from her soccer team. Further scrolling revealed pictures of her on the back porch with several tall older looking young men in Bermuda shorts and UT t-shirts.
“Good Lord,” Stephanie said. “It’s a total party. There’s no way her parents are home. I know them. They would never stand for this. That’s why Linda didn’t answer her cell phone. She could be out of the country for all I know. I’m going to drive over there.”
“Why don’t you call the home phone?” Rupert suggested. “Maybe you can talk to her and let her save face at the same time. If you threaten to go there, I guarantee she’ll come home on her own. Nobody wants their mom to show up at the party.”
“Fine,” Stephanie said. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning. Have a good night. Thanks for your help. I really appreciate it.”
Rupert clicked off the phone and Stephanie called Ursula’s house. After almost a dozen rings, a voice answered just as Stephanie expected it to go to voice mail.
“Hello,” said a deep male voice, partially obscured by the background music and the sound of laughing nearby.
“Who is this?” Stephanie asked. “Is this Ben? Ben Gaines?”
“Uh, yes ma’am,” said Ursula’s older brother, recognizing Stephanie’s voice and attempting in vain to shush the crowd behind him.
“Ben, can I speak with Ashley, please?”
“Uh, I don’t know where she is,” Ben said, with a slow drawl before seaming to turn toward the crowd. “Anyone know where Ashley Domo is?”
The background noise sounded muffled, but Stephanie could hear someone call out that she left about 20 minutes earlier.
“She took off with Scott,” someone clearly shouted back at Ben.
“Do you know where she went?” Stephanie asked, working hard to restrain her angst.
“Sorry ma’am,” Ben replied. “Nobody knows where they went. I guess they drove off somewhere. Did you try her phone?”
The movie had just ended. Emily and Britney sat along opposing ends of the couch reading their books, the orange light from the lamp in the corner gave them just the illumination needed to see the words on the pages.
The front door creaked open. Ashley peaked through the crack.
“Where’s mom?” she whispered to her two sisters.
“She’s been upstairs for a while,” Emily replied. “She might’ve gone to sleep.”
“Good,” Ashley replied as she quietly entered the foyer, took off her shoes and hung her jacket in the closet. “You can tell her I came back an hour ago.”
“I thought you were sleeping at Ursula’s?” Emily asked casually.
“I was there for a while,” she said. “Then I left.”
“Were you with Scott?” Britney asked, jumping from the couch and hopping to the kitchen table to pry into the gossip. “Why’re you back so early.”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Ashley said, pulling away from Britney as Emily put her book down and wandered to the table to listen in. “It was, well, confusing, I guess.”
“Oh my God, Ash,” Britney shrieked. “Did you…”
“No,” Ashley said. “We were, you know… Emily, this isn’t for you.”
“That’s fine,” Emily said. “I could just go wake up mom and talk to her instead.”
“Fine,” Ashley changed her tone. “It was nice. He was really sweet.”
“Where were you?”
“In the parking lot of the Little League field.”
“Right near the road?”
“No, the upper one, on top of the hill looking down over center field.”
“In his car?” Britney asked, partially horrified and equally titillated.
“In mom’s car,” she replied.
“Jesus, Ashley,” Britney squealed. “Fix your shirt, it’s totally buttoned wrong. Where’s your bra? What did you do?”
“Nothing,” she replied, pulling a lacy beige C-cup from her purse. “That’s as far as it went.”
“Did he try…”
“He tried for the next base, but I felt a little uncomfortable,” Ashley said. “I was nervous. I don’t know why. I mean, I wanted to. I think I did. I definitely could have. But, I didn’t.”
Emily left the table and returned to the couch.
“I can’t listen to this anymore,” she said.
Ashley stood up, stuffed the bra partially back into her purse and opened the freezer door.
“How did he react?” Britney asked, her face alit with suspense as if watching a thrilling movie on TV.
“He said it was ok,” Ashley replied.
“Wasn’t he mad?”
“I don’t think so,” said Ashley, pausing slightly. “Maybe a little. He got really quiet.”
“He’s too old for you,” Emily called over from the couch.
“I told him to go back to his dorm,” said Ashley, ignoring her little sister’s commentary. “I drove him to his car and told him we’d talk about it Saturday night.”
“What’s Saturday night?”
“There’s a party,” Ashley said, with a squeamish reluctance. “At his frat house.”
“You can’t go there,” Britney said. “Ash. Be smart. You can’t go to a frat party.”
“I can too,” she said, fetching an ice cream bowl from the cupboard. “It’s no big…”
At that, Ashley dropped the bowl and it shattered against the floor piercing the night air with a shrill echo that flew up the stairs and jolted Stephanie from her ongoing text string with Rupert.
Ashley tried to sweep the mess before the inevitable “Storm Steph” would blow down the stairs, but on cue, her pounding footsteps resounded across the ceiling.
“What was that?” she called out.
“Nothing mom,” Ashley’s desperate voice answered as she shuffled the broken glass bits into the trash can. “I just dropped a bowl.”
Upon seeing her middle daughter squatting in the kitchen over the remnant shards of porcelain, she remembered the text exchange from earlier in the evening. Relief battled with feelings of rage and worry as her mind raced to anticipate what kind of evening Ashley may have had.
“I thought you were staying at Ursula’s,” she said.
“I decided to come home,” Ashley replied.
“You say you’re staying out all night,” Stephanie raised her voice as her rage won the battle against her relief. “You give me no advance warning. And then you conveniently leave your phone at home so I can’t reach you. I was worried sick.”
“I was fine, Mom,” she said. “We were just watching a movie.”
“What movie?” Stephanie asked.
Britney joined Emily on the couch and slumped down below the back to sink out of sight.
“I don’t know, Mom,” Ashley said, with her face brightening into shades of dark red by the moment. “Just whatever was on.”
“Right,” Stephanie snapped. “That’s what you said last time you went to Ursula’s and that turned out to be a party with college boys.”
“It wasn’t a party, Mom,” Ashley pleaded.
“Were you with Scott?” Stephanie bellowed like a lawyer grilling a witness.
“He was there, but nothing happened.”
“You better not be lying to me,” Stephanie said.
“I’m not lying,” Ashley snapped right back. “Why do you always assume I’m lying?”
“Because you lied last time you went to Ursula’s…”
“But I’m not lying this time.”
“Fine,” Stephanie found herself continually raising her voice like a vocal arms race with her daughter. “I’ll just have a chat with Mrs. Gaines tomorrow morning.”
“Why?” Ashley yelled. “You don’t trust me?”
“Not really,” Stephanie said, with almost a triumphant smirk
She knew it was an unfair, childish smug look, unbecoming of a parent. But, at this point, she didn’t care. She had the upper hand, and Ashley’s insolence pushed her too far to maintain her parental maturity.
“I’m going to bed,” Ashley said, clutching her purse and heading for the stairs.
“Jesus Christ Ashley,” Stephanie said, noticing the bra flapping out of her sequined purse. “What did you do?”
“Nothing that you care about.”
“Ashley, Stop!” Stephanie commanded with a voice that froze Ashley in her tracks. “Did you, … honey, did you…”
“No mom,” she turned with a cold look of defiance. “We didn’t go all the way, ok. We came close, but I stopped it. You happy now?”
“Honey?” Stephanie’s voice melted. “Honey, Ashley, you can talk to me.”
“Like you even care,” Ashley spat her words, seeming to gain the smugness that evaporated from her mother’s face.
“What does that…”
“You went to bed. You didn’t even care…”
“I didn’t go to bed.”
“Whatever,” Ashley said, taking the first few steps of the stairs.
At that, Stephanie unleashed the frustration and anger from her mind onto the full audience of teenaged girls in the room.
“I’m exhausted dealing with you girls,” Stephanie ranted. “This one wants to go out with her college boyfriend all night. This one doesn’t want to go to college. I’m dealing with lawyers and judges and Senators. I’m getting the runaround from federal employees and you girls can’t just take care of yourselves for one minute while I deal with all this crap coming down on me like a shitstorm. I can’t take all this pressure. Ok? Do you understand?”
Both Britney and Emily popped their heads up from the couch like prairie dogs sniffing the air for food. Ashley stood frozen at first, but then quickly tightened her expression.
“It’s hard for us too,” she said to her mother. “But I’m not gonna stop living my life.”
“Ash,” Stephanie asked, her tone of voice softer. “Tell me you didn’t do anything you might regret.”
“I didn’t do anything I didn’t want to do,” she said, moving swiftly up the stairs before stopping and turning to her mother with the nastiest smug look she could muster. “But I’m definitely thinking about it.”
Stephanie could hear the bedroom door slam, sucking all the air and noise from the house. She stood like a rock, frozen, infuriated and helpless. She took a step toward the stairs to follow Ashley to her room when the shrill bell of the home phone cut through the silence.
“Hello,” said Emily, from the far end of the couch, followed by a long, deafening silent pause and a sudden burst of excitement. “Oh my God, Daddy!”