Page 5

She'd seen him heading her way and practically fainted. On the jukebox, "Stairway to Heaven" had been playing. Talk about romantic.

"I could get in trouble just for talking to you," he said.

She tried to look mature and worldly as she said, "I like trouble."

The smile he gave her was like nothing she'd ever seen before. For the first time in her life, she felt as beautiful as people always said she was.

"You wanna come to the party with me on Friday?"

"I could make that work," she said. It was a phrase she'd heard Erica Kane use on All My Children.

"I'll pick you up at ten." He leaned closer. "Unless that's past your curfew, little girl?"

"Seventeen Firefly Lane. And I don't have a curfew."

He smiled again. "I'm Pat, by the way."

"I'm Tully."

"Well, Tully, I'll see you at ten."

Tully still couldn't believe it. For the past forty-eight hours she'd obsessed over this first real date. All the other times she'd gone out with boys it was in a group or to a school dance. This was totally different, and Pat was practically a man.

They could fall in love; she knew it. And then, with him holding her hand, she'd stop feeling so alone.

She finally made her clothes choice.

Low-rise, three-button bell-bottom jeans, a pink scoop-necked knit top that showed off her cleavage, and her favorite cork platforms. She spent almost an hour on her makeup, layering more and more on until she looked foxy. She couldn't wait to show Pat how pretty she could be.

She grabbed a pack of her mom's cigarettes and left her bedroom.

In the living room, Mom looked up blearily from her magazine. "Hey, iss almos' ten o'clock. Where are you going?"

"This guy invited me to a party."

"Is he here?"

Right. Like Tully would invite anyone to come in. "I'm meeting him on the road."

"Oh. Cool. Don't wake me up when you get home."

"I won't."

Outside, it was dark and cold. The Milky Way stretched across the sky in a path of starlight.

She waited by her mailbox on the main road, moving from foot to foot to keep warm. Goose bumps pebbled her bare arms. The mood ring on her middle finger changed from green to purple. She tried to remember what that meant.

Across the street and up the hill, the pretty little farmhouse glowed against the darkness. Each window was like a pat of warm, melting butter. They were probably all at home, clustered around a big table, playing Risk. She wondered what they'd do if she just visited one day, showed up on the porch and said hey.

She heard Pat's car before she saw the headlights. At the roar of the engine, she forgot all about the family across the street and stepped into the road, waving.

His green Dodge Charger came to a stop beside her; the car seemed to pulse with sound, vibrate. She slid into the passenger seat. The music was so loud she knew he couldn't hear what she said.

Grinning at her, Pat hit the gas and they were off like a rocket, blasting down the quiet country lane.

As they turned onto a gravel road, she could see the party going on below. Dozens of cars were parked in a huge circle in a pasture, with their headlights on. Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "Taking Care of Business" blared from someone's car radio. Pat parked over in the stand of trees along the fence line.

There were kids everywhere, gathered around the flames of the bonfire, standing beside the kegs of beer set up in the grass. Clear plastic cups littered the ground. Down by the barn, a group of guys were playing touch football. It was late in May, and summer was still a ways away, so most people were wearing coats. She wished she hadn't forgotten hers.

Pat held her hand tightly, leading her through the crowd of couples toward the keg, where he poured two cups full.

Taking hers, she let him lead her down to a quiet spot just beyond the perimeter of cars. There, he spread his letterman's jacket down on the ground and motioned for her to sit down.

"I couldn't believe it when I first saw you," Pat said, sitting close to her, sipping his beer. "You're the prettiest girl ever to live in this town. All the guys want you."

"But you got me," she said, smiling at him. It felt as if she were falling into his dark eyes.

He took a big drink of his beer, practically finishing it, then he set it down and kissed her.

Other guys had kissed her before; mostly they were fumbling, nervous attempts made during a slow dance. This was different. Pat's mouth was like magic. She sighed happily, whispering his name. When he drew back, he was staring at her with pure, sunshiny love in his eyes. "I'm glad you're here."

"Me, too."

He finished off his beer and got up. "I need more brew."

They were in line at the keg when he frowned at her. "Hey, you aren't drinking. I thought you were cool with partying."

"I am." She smiled nervously. She'd never really drank before, but he wouldn't like her if she acted like a nerd, and she was desperate for him to want her. "Bottoms up," she said, tilting the plastic tumbler to her lips and drinking the whole amount without stopping. When she finished, she couldn't help burping and giggling.

"Far out," he said, nodding, pouring two more beers.

The second one wasn't so bad, and by the third beer Tully had completely lost her sense of taste. When Pat brought out a bottle of Annie Green Springs wine, she guzzled some of that, too. For almost an hour, they sat on his jacket, tucked close together, drinking and talking. She didn't know any of the people he talked about, but that didn't matter. What mattered was the way he looked at her, the way he held her hand.

"Come on," he whispered, "let's dance."

She felt woozy when she stood up. Her balance was off and she kept stumbling during their dance. Finally, she fell down altogether. Pat laughed, took her hand to pull her up, and led her to a dark, romantic spot in the trees. Giggling, she hobbled awkwardly behind him, gasping when he took her in his arms and kissed her.

It felt so good; made her blood feel tingly and hot. She pressed up against him like a cat, loving the way he was making her feel. Any minute he was going to draw back and look down at her and say, I love you, just like Ryan O'Neal in Love Story.

Maybe Tully would even call him preppie when she said it back to him. Their song would be "Stairway to Heaven." They'd tell people they met while—

His tongue slipped into her mouth, pressing hard, sweeping around like some kind of alien probe. Suddenly it didn't feel good anymore, didn't feel right. She tried to say, Stop, but her voice had no sound; he was sucking up all her air.

His hands were everywhere: up her back, around her side, plucking at her bra, trying to undo it. She felt it come free with a sickening little pop. And then he was touching her boob.

"No . . ." she whimpered, trying to push his hands away. This wasn't what she wanted. She wanted love, romance, magic. Someone to love her. Not . . . this. "No, Pat, don't—"

"Come on, Tully. You know you want it." He pushed her back and she stumbled, fell to the ground hard, hitting her head. For a second, her vision blurred. When it cleared, he was on his knees, between her legs. He held both her hands in one of his, pinning her to the ground.

"That's what I like," he said, pushing her legs apart.

Shoving her top up, he stared down at her naked chest. "Oh, yeah . . ." He cupped one breast, tweaked her nipple hard. His other hand slipped into her pants, beneath her underwear.

"Stop. Please . . ." Tully tried desperately to get free, but her wriggling only seemed to excite him.

Between her legs, his fingers probed her hard, moving inside her. "Come on, baby, let yourself like it."

She felt herself starting to cry. "Don't—"

"Oh, yeah . . ." He covered her body with his, pressed her into the wet grass.

She was crying so hard now she could taste her own tears, but he didn't seem to care. His kisses were something else now—slobbering, sucking, biting; it hurt, but not as much as his belt, hitting her stomach when he pulled it off, or his penis, ramming—

She squeezed her eyes shut as pain ripped between her legs, scraped her insides.

Then, suddenly, it was over. He rolled off her, lay beside her, holding her close, kissing her cheek as if what he'd just done to her had been love.

"Hey, you're crying." He gently smoothed the hair away from her face. "What's the matter? I thought you wanted it."

She didn't know what to say. Like every girl, she'd imagined losing her virginity, but it had never felt like this in her dreams. She stared at him in disbelief. "Wanted that?"

An irritated frown creased his forehead. "Come on, Tully, let's dance."

The way he said it, so quietly, as if he were actually confused by her reaction, only made it worse. She'd done something wrong, obviously, been a prick tease, and this was what happened to girls who played at it.

He stared at her for a minute longer, then stood up and pulled his pants up. "Whatever. I need another drink. Let's go."

She rolled onto her side. "Go away."

She felt him beside her, knew he was staring down at her. "You acted like you wanted it, damn it. You can't lead a guy on and then just go cold. Grow up, little girl. This is your fault."

She closed her eyes and ignored him, thankful when he finally left her. For once she was glad to be alone.

She lay there, feeling broken and hurt and, worst of all, stupid. After an hour or so, she heard the party break up, heard the car engines start, and the tires pealing through loose gravel as they drove away.

And still she lay there, unable to make herself move. This was all her fault; he was right about that. She was stupid and young. All she'd wanted was someone to love her.

"Stupid," she hissed, finally sitting up.

Moving slowly, she got dressed and tried to stand. At the movement, she felt sick to her stomach and immediately puked all over her favorite shoes. When it was over, she bent down for her purse, clutched it to her chest, and made her long, painful way back up to the road.

There were no cars out this late at night, and she was glad for that. She didn't want to have to explain to anyone why her hair was full of pine needles and her shoes were stained with vomit.

All the way home she relived what had happened—the way Pat had smiled at her when he asked her to the party; the gentle first kiss he'd given her; the way he talked to her as if she mattered; then the other Pat, with his harsh hands and his probing tongue and fingers, with his hard cock and how roughly he'd stuck it up inside her.

The more she replayed it in her mind, the lonelier and more desolate she felt.

If only she had someone she trusted to talk to. Maybe that would ease a little of this pain. But, of course, there was no one.

This was another secret she'd have to keep, like her weirdo mother and unknown father. People would say she had it coming, a junior high girl at a high school party.

As she neared her driveway, she walked a little more slowly. The thought of going home, of feeling alone in a place that should be a refuge for her, with a woman who was supposed to love her, was suddenly unbearable.

The neighbors' old gray horse trotted up to the fence line and nickered at her.

Tully crossed the street and walked up the hill. At the fence, she yanked up a handful of grass and held it out to him. "Hey there, boy."