There are pivotal points in our lives when an action or a decision will change life as we know it forever. Some of those points are joyous, celebrated occasions that years from now we will point to with pride and say that we always knew it was the right thing to do. Other times, the decisions will be much harder and when you look back on them, the end results may not be all you had hoped. That's the way life goes. It's also important to remember that any choice we make is like the stone thrown into a quiet pool . . . the ripples will often have far-reaching effects . . . many of them totally unexpected.

There are those who say that the most difficult choices we ever make are those that come in that gray area between child and adulthood. The goal of independence is both attractive and difficult to attain, and the road to it is never easy. No two people will see those choices in the same way . . . particularly when it comes to a parent and child. So it's to be expected that when a child begins making his (or her) own decisions, particularly about significant events that will have far-reaching effects, that his parents may have a radically different view of what the "right" choice should be.

But difficult decisions that have lasting effects are not limited to the young. Each and every one of us make them on a daily basis, and we all must learn to grow and adapt to the changes that come as a result.

So, with that in mind, I offer the first in a set of stories that I collectively call . . .

When Did Life Get This Complicated?

Growing Pains I:


Debbie Kluge

Part I

Jonny stared at the letter in his hand in stunned disbelief. Not accepted? How could that be? Taking a deep breath, he started back at the beginning and read through the letter again slowly.

Dear Mr. Quest:

We regret to inform you that after careful consideration, the Admissions Committee has determined that we will be unable to grant your request for admission to Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Committee feels certain that you would have been an excellent student and we regret that the number of outstanding candidates for the limited number of available spaces in the freshman class makes it impossible for us to offer you admission at this time.

We have no doubt that you will be highly successful in the pursuit of your education and your future career, and regret that you will be unable to pursue those goals at our institution. Thank you for your interest in our University and we wish you the best of luck in all your future endeavors.


Gordon R. Rankin, Ph.D.
Admissions Committee

Jonny sat there for a long time, staring blankly at the words. Hadji had been admitted to M.I.T. and had seriously considered going there before he had settled on Columbia. Jessie had been accepted and had already decided to go there in the fall. And Kefira had even been accepted on a late application before declining to join Hadji at Columbia. How could it be possible that he hadn't been accepted? His grades were good enough, the interview had gone extremely well, and the Admissions Committee had told him that his acceptance was all but a certainty. His father was even on the Board of Trustees. This just didn't make sense.

Folding the letter carefully, he tucked it back into the envelope and stuffed it into his pocket. He wasn't going to accept this. Not yet. He considered going to his father and asking him to intercede, but rejected that thought almost immediately. He didn't want to get in that way. He wanted to get in on his own merits. It wasn't that he didn't have other choices. He'd been accepted into every other school he'd applied to, including Texas A&M, Stanford, Berkeley, Columbia, Harvard and even Oxford. But Jess wanted to go to M.I.T. So that's where they were going to go. What was he going to do if he couldn't get in? He shoved that thought away. No, this had to be a mistake. It just had to be.

* * * * *

Jonny tried for over a week to reach Dr. Rankin. His first thought . . . that he contact the man via e-mail . . . he rejected after only the briefest consideration. That simply didn't have the personal touch that he felt would be important. He decided that the best bet was a phone call. So the day after he got the letter, he attempted to call Dr. Rankin. The secretary had told him that Dr. Rankin was in meetings and wasn't available, so he left a message and asked him to return the call. He waited for two days before trying again. This time he was in his office, but with someone. So Jonny waited for half an hour and called again. This time, the man had just left for lunch . . . even though it was only 10:45. Again, he left a message but never received a call back. The next day he tried one more time. This time the man had left for the day . . . at 2:15 in the afternoon. It was then that he began to suspect the letter was no mistake. Finally, he decided he would simply have to go see Dr. Rankin in person.

He couldn't explain why, but he simply couldn't bring himself to tell anyone about the situation. Especially Jess. He had no idea what he would say to her if this really wasn't a mistake. Every time he considered it, he felt more than a little sick.

It took almost ten days for him to find a time when he could disappear for the day without anyone asking any questions. He knew that Jessie had a fieldtrip to Moosehead Lake in western Maine for her wildlife biology class during the first week in March, so he decided to go to M.I.T. the day she was gone. He told Race and his father that he and Matt Evans were doing an overnight winter camping trip. Neither man was surprised, since Jonny and the Evans brothers often did things together. Bobby and Matt had looked at him rather strangely, but both agreed to cover for him if anyone asked. After that was set up, it was a simple matter to notify the school guidance counselor that he was making a day trip to inspect a potential college campus to get himself clear. He left home at about 7:30 that evening and drove until he reached the far side of Portland. There he found a cheap motel and slept until about 6:30 the next morning, and by seven he was on the road again.

He reached the outskirts of Boston by 8:30. There, he found a park-and-ride lot and hopped onto the subway. He knew from experience that taking the T would be both faster and easier on his nerves than trying to find parking down by the riverfront in Cambridge. He wanted to be sure to leave himself as much time as he could in case he had to try to track Dr. Rankin down. He hadn't called ahead for an appointment. If he was right and the man was ducking him, he wasn't going to give him advanced warning that he was coming.

The Green line deposited him at the Central Square station at a little after 9:00. He walked down Massachusetts Avenue toward campus trying to figure out exactly what he was going to say. But somehow he couldn't find anything that sounded right. With a sigh, he decided the only thing he could do was get in to see the man and then play it by ear.

When he walked into the Admissions Office, the staff was working busily and he was the only visitor. Breathing a sigh of relief, he stepped to the receptionist's desk and said, "Hi! Can you tell me where I can find Nancy?" His tone said he knew the woman and was expected. The girl smiled and pointed to a desk at the far end of the room. "Thanks," he said, smiling at her, and then walked the length of the room confidently. For the first time, he was grateful for all of the phone calls he'd made to this office and the number of times he'd talked to Dr. Rankin's secretary. When he reached the desk, he stopped and waited politely while the woman finished her phone conversation. When she hung up, she looked up and smiled at him.

"Hello. May I help you?"

"Nancy?" he asked.

She looked at him, a bit puzzled. "Yes," she agreed.

"Hi. My name is Jonathan Quest and I've talked to you several times over the last couple of weeks."

Nancy's smile faltered and she shot a quick look at a closed door not far away. Then her smile was back. "Of course, Mr. Quest. How nice to finally meet you. How can I help you today?"

"I apologize for turning up so unexpectedly, but I really do need to talk with Dr. Rankin. I'm more than happy to wait, if he can just spare me 15 minutes of his time."

"I'm very sorry, Mr. Quest, but Dr. Rankin has appointments all morning and then he's leaving for a conference and won't be back until next week."

"I see," Jonny replied pleasantly. "Then I'll be more than happy to take him to lunch." He gestured to a chair not far away. "I'll just wait." Turning, he walked over and sat down.

Nancy hesitated and then rose and went to the closed door. After knocking, she stepped into the office and closed it behind her. Jonny didn't figure she would be gone long and he was right. Within two minutes, she was back.

"Mr. Quest, I'm so sorry, but I've spoken with Dr. Rankin and he advises me that he simply doesn't have the time to see you today. He apologizes and suggests that the next time you need to see him, you might call ahead and make an appointment."

He contemplated her for a long moment and then said quietly, "Why is he avoiding me, Nancy?"

She looked flustered and sputtered, "Oh now, Mr. Quest, I'm sure that . . . I mean, he's not . . ."

"He is avoiding me, you know. He's never in when I call, he won't return phone calls, and he's finding reasons not to see me. What's going on? Fifteen minutes of his time would probably resolve the issue and that would be the end of it."

"I really am sorry," she replied, sounding honestly regretful, "but he just doesn't have the time today."

"When would you suggest that I try again?" he asked.

That flustered her even more. "Oh, well . . . I don't know . . . he's terribly busy . . ."

"I see." Jonny stood abruptly. "I believe you've made yourself clear enough, Nancy." Turning, he stalked out of the room without another word.

Outside the building, he stopped and gazed out across the snow-covered Killian Court blindly. Now what was he going to do? He winced and rubbed his chest just below his breastbone. Ever since he got that letter, he had developed sharp, stabbing pains in his stomach. He was so tense . . . he hoped he wasn't developing an ulcer. Maybe he should see Dr. Mason when he got home. Trying to think clearly, he contemplated his next step. If he couldn't get in to see Dr. Rankin, then maybe he could find one or more of the committee members. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a sheet of paper. Several days earlier, anticipating this very problem, he'd tried to remember the people he'd interviewed with. There had been five committee members, counting Dr. Rankin. He couldn't remember all of them, but he did remember that there was a woman named Skye Sperling and an Engineering professor name Sikes. He thought about it for a minute and then had an idea. Spinning on his heel, he strode off toward Barker Library.

Entering the library, he looked around and spotted a computer terminal not far away. Going over, he settled down and began typing quickly. It didn't take him more than a few minutes to locate the two committee members he remembered. Skye Sperling was a professor in the Art Department and her office was in the Wiesner Building over on Kendall Square, and Sikes was Benjamin Sikes, a faculty member in the department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Looking at the campus address, Jonny decided he'd start with Dr. Sikes since he was close . . . his office was right along Killian Court in the Pappalardo Engineering Lab.

Soon, he was wandering along a long, brightly lit corridor searching for room 327. Finally locating it, he knocked on the door. No answer. After a moment, he knocked a second time.

"He's not there," a voice behind him said cheerfully.

Turning, he found a tall, gawky-looking young man with dark hair grinning at him.

"Hi," Jonny replied with a friendly grin. "How do you know he's not there?"

"He never is," the young man replied. "If he's around here anywhere, he's in the lab. He all but lives there."

"Can you point me in that direction?"

"Sure." The young man pointed up the hall. "See the exit sign at the end of the hall? Take the staircase down to second floor. When you get down there, take a left and go down the hall until you see a short corridor on your right that leads back toward the center of the building. It should be about halfway down the hallway. You'll find a door with a swipe reader on it near the end of the short corridor. If Sikes is anywhere around the building, he'll be in there. There's a window - you should be able to see him if he's there. Just pound on the door until he notices you. And don't worry if it takes a while to attract his attention. He can get sort of wrapped up sometimes."

Jonny grinned. "I know how it is. My dad's the same way."

The stranger laughed. "Your dad's a professor, too?"

"No," Jonny replied with a laugh, "but he's a research scientist. When he gets involved, a meteor could strike right next door and he'd never hear it."

"That's Sikes," the young man agreed.

"Hey, thanks for the help!"

"No problem, man."

Following the young man's directions, Jonny soon found himself standing before the indicated door. Looking through the window, he spotted a short, tubby man in glasses bending over a large tank filled with water. As he stood, Jonny recognized him as Benjamin Sikes. Jonny knocked loudly on the door and after a moment, the man looked up. Jonny waved and gestured at him. With another quick look at the tank, Sikes crossed to the door and opened it.

"Can I help you?"

"I'm sorry to interrupt, Dr. Sikes, but I wonder if I might talk to you for a moment. I don't know if you remember me, but I . . ."

"Quest, right?"

"Yes, sir. Jonathan Quest. I was a candidate for admission for next fall."

"I remember you. I do hope you're going to join us in the fall."

"Well, sir, that's what I'd like to talk to you about."

Sikes looked at him in surprise. "All right," he replied. "Give me a minute and we'll go back to my office where we can sit down."

Jonny nodded and gestured toward the main hall. "I'll wait for you out here."

A short time later, the two of them entered the small office one floor up. Jonny looked around. The place was a mess. Every single flat surface, including most of the floor, was stacked with books and papers.

Sikes waved a hand at a larger than normal stack of books. "Sorry for the mess. You can sit there. Just shove the stuff off onto the floor. I'll sort it out later."

When Jonny finished clearing the indicated spot, he found a chair buried beneath the clutter and sat down upon it.

"Now, Mr. Quest, what can I do for you?" Sikes asked, leaning back in a well-worn green desk chair.

"I was wondering if you could tell me why the committee rejected my application for admission."

Sikes frowned. "What do you mean?"

Jonny reached into his jacket and pulled out the letter. Opening it, he handed it to the man. Sikes' eyebrows rose steadily as he scanned the document.

"Dr. Sikes, please understand that I can accept it if there was a reason I was rejected. I'd just like to know what it was."

"What does Dr. Rankin say?"

"Nothing. He won't see me."

If possible, Sikes' eyebrows rose even further. "Won't see you?"

"No, sir. I've been trying for almost two weeks. He's never in when I call, nor will he return my calls even though I've left a number where I can be reached at any time. So today I drove down here from Maine to try to meet with him and I can't even get past his secretary."

"So you decided to come to me."

"Not you, specifically. When Dr. Rankin refused to see me, I decided to see if I could talk to the committee members. You were the first one I found. So can you tell me, Dr. Sikes? Why I wasn't admitted?"

"No, Mr. Quest, I can't." He waved his hand to cut off Jonny's half-formed protest. "I can't tell you why you were rejected, because you weren't. In fact, you were one of only about six other potential students that the committee was unanimous about admitting. I don't understand this at all." Sikes looked at the young man thoughtfully for a long moment and then nodded as if coming to some kind of decision. "Do you have some time, Mr. Quest?"

"Yes, sir. As much as you need."

"Good. Then sit there and let me see what I can find out." Turning away, he began sifting through the pile of stuff on his desk. After a few moments of searching, he made a soft sound of satisfaction and pulled a beaten, expandable pocket file out of one of the stacks. He quickly flipped through the file and retrieved a single sheet of paper. Glancing at it, he picked up the phone and began to dial. After a few seconds, he leaned back and said, "Douglas? Benjamin Sikes. How are you doing today? Fine, fine. The paper? Yes, I finished it. I'm still waiting to hear back from the publication review board. Thanks. I welcome all the good will and positive thoughts I can get. Say, Douglas, I need to ask you something. Remember the young man we interviewed for admission in November? Good looking, tall, blonde, exceedingly bright, name of Quest? Yes, Benton Quest's boy . . . that's the one. Have you heard anything about his application for admission being rejected? Yes, I know the vote was unanimous. That's what's puzzling me. The boy is sitting here with me right now and I've got the rejection letter in my hand. He also says that George is refusing to see him and won't explain the reason for the rejection. So you haven't heard anything about this, either. Stranger and stranger. I'm going to give the other members of the committee a call and see if I can't find out what's going on. I'd hate to lose a student of his caliber over some kind of administrative snafu. Yeah, I'll let you know what I find out. Thanks."

Over the course of the next twenty minutes, Jonny listened as Dr. Sikes tracked down and talked to all of the committee members. In each case, the reply was always the same. No one knew anything about Jonny not being admitted to M.I.T. Finally, Sikes sat back and looked at Jonny again. "Well, that's it. No one knows anything about this."

"Could it be that Dr. Rankin made the decision himself, as head of the committee?" Jonny ventured hesitantly. He simply couldn't understand what was going on.

Sikes shook his head. "No. Rankin may be the head of the committee, but he doesn't have the authority to overrule the majority vote." Standing up abruptly, Sikes reached for his coat. "Come along, Mr. Quest. You may not be able to get by George Rankin's secretary, but I can."

A short time later, Jonny followed Sikes into the Admissions Office. The receptionist smiled at him again as Sikes strode past her and walked up to the secretary's desk. "I need to see him, Nancy," he said. Jonny saw her eyes widen with alarmed recognition as she spotted him.

"No, Dr. Sikes! Please, he's in . . ."

"Then he can get out," Sikes said flatly and walked right up to the door. Without a preliminary knock, Sikes opened it and barged in. George Rankin looked up sharply. He was probably just past middle age, with a thin, acetic face, a spare, whip-like build, straight black hair that formed a pronounced widow's peak in the center of his forehead, and dark eyes that appeared almost black. The frown he directed at Sikes would have quelled most men that Jonny knew.

"Benjamin, what is the meaning of this?" He flicked a swift glance at Jonny and then glared at the man facing him across the desk once more. "And who is this?"

"Don't give me that, George. You know exactly who this is. You've spent the last two weeks trying to avoid him. So now that he's managed to get past the barricades you've erected, why don't you answer his question? I'd like to hear the reply myself, seeing as how the committee voted to admit him. Care to explain it?"

Rankin looked from Jonny to Sikes and then sighed. "All right. Sit down . . . both of you." Rankin glared at Jonny. "You just couldn't leave it alone, could you?"

"No, sir, I'm sorry, but I can't. As I told Dr. Sikes, I want to attend your university and I'm not prepared to give up on that idea until I know the precise reason why that isn't going to be possible."

"Well, I wish I could tell you, Mr. Quest, but I'm afraid I can't. To be honest, I don't know why you weren't admitted either."

"What are you talking about, George?" Sikes said irritably. "The admission vote was unanimous. And I've talked to the other committee members. No one knew anything about this."

"I mean exactly what I said," Rankin snapped. "I don't know why the boy was rejected. We forwarded the usual recommendation list to the Provost for approval. I expected it back within a week or two with the official go ahead to send the acceptance letters. I got the list back, all right, but young Quest's name had been marked out and there was a note from Brown himself stating that we were to go to the first alternate on the list. When I tried to question him on it, the man simply told me that the decision had been made and we were to do as he said."

"But why?" Jonny demanded in bewilderment. "I don't understand!"

For the first time, Rankin's face seemed to soften and he said regretfully, "I know son, and I'm very sorry. I don't understand it, either. But even if we could find out why it happened, there really isn't much that can be done. The offer letters have gone out and we've received the acknowledgements. Even if the rejection was rescinded, it's too late. The freshman class has been filled and we can't withdraw any of the offers to make room for you."

Jonny sat there numbly, not knowing what to do. Everything he and Jessie had planned seemed to be crumbling into dust. And what was worse, he couldn't even seem to find out why.

"It really isn't the end of the world, you know," Rankin said gently.

After a long moment, Jonny replied, "No sir, I suppose it's not. But you really have no idea how many plans this has destroyed." He stared at the carpet for a long time. Finally, he looked up into the sympathetic gaze of the man behind the desk and said quietly, "I understand that there's nothing that can be done. But I wonder if you could do me a favor."

"If I can," Rankin acknowledged.

"I want to see Provost Brown. I think that, at the very least, someone owes me the courtesy of an explanation."

Rankin stared at the young man for a long time. Finally, he nodded. Reaching for the phone, he dialed a number from memory. After a few seconds, he said, "Bob? This is George Rankin. I wonder if you could make a few moments for me? I have something I need to talk with you about. You can? Good, I'll be right down." Rising briskly, Rankin said, "Come along, Mr. Quest. Let's see if we can get some answers."

As Rankin came around the desk, Sikes rose and held out his hand to Jonny. "Good luck, Mr. Quest. I'm very sorry to know you won't be here this fall."

"Thank you, Dr. Sikes," he replied heavily, returning the handshake. "I'm sorry not to have the opportunity to take classes with you." Then Jonny followed the other man out.

The Admissions Office was on the fifth floor of the Administration building. Provost Brown's office was almost directly below, two floors down, so it took very little time to reach their destination. Rankin nodded to the secretary, who waved him to the door. Knocking briskly, Rankin opened the door and walked in. Provost Brown was almost the exact opposite of George Rankin. He was tall and stocky, with a heavily lined face and iron gray hair. His eyes were a pale, washed-out blue, but when they looked at Jonny he saw lively interest reflected there.

"Bob, I'd like to you meet Jonathan Quest. Mr. Quest was a candidate for admission to the fall class. Mr. Quest, Provost Brown."

Jonny nodded. "Sir."

"Mr. Quest. Please, have a seat." He contemplated the young man quietly for a moment. Finally, he said, "I don't think I need to guess why you're here, do I, Mr. Quest?"

"No, sir. I suspect you already know. I'd like to know why I won't be able to attend here this fall."

"There are a great many highly qualified applicants who request admission to this school, Mr. Quest. We have an outstanding record and it attracts the best and the brightest."

"Yes, you do. That's the reason I wanted to come here. And I could accept it if it was purely that the competition was stiff and I didn't measure up. But that's not the case, sir. The entire committee recommended me for admission and I still didn't get in. As I've explained to Dr. Rankin, I understand that there is nothing that can be done about it now. But I would still like to know the reason why."

"Mr. Quest, I really don't see what purpose it would serve . . ."

"Is it really that hard of a question, Dr. Brown?" Jonny demanded, his temper finally beginning to fray. "I've lost count of the number of times I've asked it. I've also lost track of the number of times I've heard, 'I don't know' as the answer. I'm sorry, sir, but that's just not good enough."

Brown sighed and sat forward, clasping his hands in front of him on the desk. "The directive came down to me from the President's Office."

Jonny's jaw clenched. Very carefully he replied, "All right, then how do I get in to see President Vest?"

Brown focused on him sharply. "Do you know President Vest, Mr. Quest?"

"I've met him. He's a friend of my father's."

"A friend of your father's," Brown repeated softly. He watched Jonny closely as he continued, "Your father is a member of the Company, isn't he? One of the Trustees?"

"Yes," Jonny replied shortly.

"And what does your father have to say about this situation?"

"I haven't discussed it with him. I don't believe in pulling strings or applying pressure, Dr. Brown. I decided a long time ago that if I was to get into this school, it was going to be on my own merits. I'm not going to trade on my father's influence."

"I see." The Provost sat back in his chair and stared at Jonny with an unreadable expression. Finally, he said slowly, "I've been given to understand, Mr. Quest, that the decision to rescind your admission came down from the highest levels."

Jonny looked at the man in confusion. "But I don't understand why President Vest would . . ."

"The highest levels, Mr. Quest," the man repeated softly. It took a moment for the emphasis to register, but when it did, Jonny could feel all the color draining from his face. "As a personal favor . . ."

Jonny sat staring blindly at the surface of the desk, barely even able to breathe. The implication was clear. A personal favor . . . to someone at the highest levels . . . to one of the trustees . . . to his own father. His father had done this? But WHY??? Finally, he looked up at the man across the desk from him again. The pity in his eyes was almost more than Jonny could bear. Taking a deep breath, he rose and held out his hand. In some abstract part of his brain, he was proud to see that it wasn't shaking.

"Thank you for your time, Dr. Brown. I appreciate your help . . . " He looked the man directly in the eyes. " . . . and your candor."

"You're very welcome, Mr. Quest. I am sincerely sorry that you won't be a part of our freshman class. I believe it is our loss."

Jonny nodded mutely. Turning to the other man, he shook his hand and said, "Dr. Rankin." Without another word, Jonny Quest turned on his heel and walked out.

* * * * *

Darkness was gathering by the time Jonny parked the car on the concrete drive near the garage behind the Quest Compound's main house. In the five plus hours it had taken him to make the drive back, he had gone over and over what Dr. Brown had told him and the conclusion was unavoidable. For some reason, Benton Quest has used his influence as a member of the Board of Trustees to have his son removed from the freshman admissions list of M.I.T. Whatever had caused him to make that decision had not been discussed with Jonny . . . only acted upon by his father. That knowledge was like a knife in his gut.

Initial numbness had faded as he made his way off campus and back to his car. A growing sense of betrayal had soon taken over, so that by the time he finally arrived back at the Compound, the only emotion he had left was fury. He flung the back door open and stormed into the kitchen, causing Mrs. Evans to start violently.

"Where is my father?" he demanded harshly.

The woman hesitated and then replied, "In his study . . ."

He shoved through the swinging door and headed directly for his father's study without even stopping to shed his coat. When he reached the door, he flung it open with such force that it slammed into the wall with a loud report. Jonny thought he heard the heavy hardwood crack.

"So, you want to tell me why???" he demanded in fury, breathing heavily.

"Why what, son?" his father replied, looking shaken and bewildered.

"Why you had my admission to M.I.T. pulled." Something flickered on Benton's face briefly and then was gone.

"Jonny, why would I do . . ."

"Don't LIE to me!" Jonny yelled, his voice rising sharply. "I know! I spent the day there, trying to figure out what happened . . . why my admission was denied when the committee members told me on the day I interviewed that admission was almost a certainty . . . why the head of the Admissions' Committee wouldn't talk to me when I called to find out what was going on. Dr. Sikes was absolutely astonished when I showed him the letter. It seems the vote was unanimous to admit me. Do you have any idea what it took to get in to see Dr. Rankin? Or Provost Brown? Or how stupid I felt when Provost Brown told me that the action had been taken on behalf of one of the trustees? From YOU!!! Why? Just tell me WHY!!!!"

"What's going on?" Race demanded, stepping in through the open door and pushing his way past Jonny to put himself between them. Benton was pale as a ghost, sitting immobile in his desk chair as his red-faced, furious son confronted him across the expanse of the desk. "What's happened?" Behind Jonny, Race saw Jessie and Estella appear. Jessie crossed to the younger man and caught his arm urgently.

"Ask my father!" Jonny spat. "Ask him why he pressured the Admissions Committee at M.I.T. into denying me admission for fall!"

The silence was absolute as Jessie turned to stare at Benton Quest in shock. Finally, Race asked quietly, "Benton, is this true?"

Suddenly, Benton surged to his feet, a hard, cold light in his eyes. "Yes, it's true," he replied bluntly. "I spoke to President Vest and asked him, as a personal favor to me, if he would have the Committee deny your application for admission. I told him that, due to a family situation, it would be better for you to attend school further away, and that if you were denied admission it would be easier for you to adjust." He gestured to the two young people standing in front of him. "The two of you are way too young for the things that have been going on around here, and I'll be damned if I pack you both off to M.I.T. together and allow it to continue." Benton nodded grimly at their expressions. "Oh, yes, I know about the 'extracurricular activities' that go on in this house when none of the rest of us are around! It's time that the two of you get some distance and perspective on your relationship. A couple of years of separation while you're at school will be good for both of you." He gestured at his son. "You can go to Stanford or Berkeley while Jessie goes to M.I.T. That will give you . . ."

"NO! You had NO right!!!!" The fury was white hot now. Jonny's vision had become preternaturally sharp, focusing solely on his father. "We are NOT children, to be ordered around like . . . like . . . property!" he spat back. "You are NOT going to dictate to me when I see Jessie, what I do when I'm with her, or what school I will attend! Those are MY choices."

"As long as you live in MY house . . ."

Race jumped in. "Stop!" he said frantically. "Stop it now! You're both too angry. You need to calm down before you both say things you'll regret!"

During the entire exchange, Jessie had stood silently beside Jonny, too stunned to say anything. It was as though one of her own parents had turned on her. She had loved and trusted this man. For him to have done something like this to them . . . Finally, she looked directly at Benton Quest. What he saw in her face, she couldn't say, but whatever it was stopped him even more effectively than Race's raised voice. She felt a single tear trace its way down her cheek, as she whispered, "I know it's been difficult for you, and I've tried so hard never to give you any reason to think I was trying to take him away. All I ever wanted was to be a part of both of your lives. I thought you loved me . . . that you were happy for us . . ." With a strangled sob, she turned and, shoving past her mother, ran from the room.

As she fled, Jonny felt an almost overpowering desire to strike his father as hard as he could. With the last of his self-control, he checked himself, knowing that Race was right. He had to get out of there before the situation got totally out of control. "YOU SON OF A BITCH!" Jonny snarled and, with a final, furious look, spun and ran after Jessie.

He took the stairs three at a time and went straight to her room. As quick as he had been, Estella had been quicker. She stood at the closed door, rattling the knob frantically.

"Jessica, open this door. Please, sweetheart. It will be all right. Just let me in."

Jonny strode up to the door and shoved the woman rudely. She stumbled back, coming up against the wall on the other side of the hall. She stood staring at the enraged young man, in shock.

"Jess, let me in," Jonny demanded, his barely controlled fury causing his voice to resonate deeply. After a few seconds, he heard the lock disengage and the door opened a crack. He could see her checking to be certain that it was actually him at the door, before opening it wide enough to allow him to slip in. The instant the door began to open, Estella straightened and tried to step back into the gap.

"Jessie, please let me . . ."

"Get out!!!" Jonny snarled, turning on her in fury. His anger was simply too great at that instant to tolerate any adult, even though some part of his mind realized that it was unfair to turn his rage at his father on Jessie's mother.

Jessie reached out, grabbed his arm, and pulled him into her room swiftly. Estella had only the briefest glimpse of the pain and disillusionment on her daughter's face before Jessie said, "Go away, Mother," and shut the door in her face. The sound of the lock sliding home once more was loud in the ensuing silence.

Jonny and Jessie faced each other wordlessly. Neither knew what to say to the other. The future that they had so carefully planned together seemed to be lying in shattered pieces at their feet. Jonny fought desperately to rein in his temper. As he began to calm down, reaction set in and he started to shake. Jessie leaped forward and threw her arms around him. He clutched her to him tightly, feeling the sobs that wracked her. A loud knocking on the door caused them to step apart. Both turned to face the door, unconsciously arranging themselves shoulder-to-shoulder against whoever stood on the other side of the barrier.

"Jessie, I need to talk with the two of you. Let me in, sweetheart."

The two of them looked at each other again.

"I don't dare face any of them right now," Jonny whispered hoarsely. "I'm still too angry. Race is right . . . I'll say or do something I'll live to regret."

"Jessie, open this door," her father demanded sharply.

"He'll find a key," she replied in the same soft tone, dragging her sleeve over her face to dry it. "Or he'll break it down, if he wants in that badly." On the other side of the door, they could hear the sound of indistinct voices in conversation.

"I need to get out of here, then."

"We need to get out of here," she replied, and Jonny saw her eyes fill with tears again. "I can't face them, either, and I won't let them see me break down again!"

Jessie spun suddenly and strode to the closet. Almost instantly, she returned with a coiled length of rope. She knelt and tied one end of it quickly to the leg of the bed. Crossing to the window, she opened it and tossed the rope out.

"Jess, we can't do this," Jonny hissed frantically. "You don't have a coat! The temperature is dropping too fast, and you can bet that they won't let us anywhere near a car . . ."

"What they don't know . . ." she replied. Grabbing him by the hand, she drew him swiftly back to the closet. "In! We hide here and let them think we left. Then, once they're occupied elsewhere, we get out of here."

A loud blow struck the door once more. "JESSICA!"

As they dove into the closet, they both heard a key in the door. They crouched in the back of the closet, hidden by several full length dresses and a clutter of sports equipment, and listened as the door opened.

"Jessica, where are . . . Shit!" They could hear Race stride across the floor and then wood creaked. They could almost see him leaning out over the windowsill, staring at the rope dangling down the side of the house.

Footsteps sounded again and Benton's voice demanded, "Where are they?"

"It looks like they're gone," Race replied.

"Gone! Gone where?" The steps quickened, and again they could hear the creak of wood as Benton leaned out of the window. "IRIS, scan the surrounding grounds for Jonny and Jessie" he demanded.


"The cars!" Benton said suddenly. The sound of running feet receded quickly. After a moment, the two of them crept out of the closet. The room was empty. Jessie started for the door, but Jonny stopped her.

"Wait," he whispered. Turning, he went swiftly to Jessie's computer and began typing.

"What are you doing?" Jessie hissed. "We have to get out of here!"

"If we don't blind ourselves to IRIS, we won't get ten feet outside any door of this house. Hang on, I'm almost there . . . Got it! Come on, let's go . . . " They both spun . . . and came face-to-face with Estella.

"Going somewhere?" she asked quietly.

"Out," Jonny replied stiffly.

"Out where?"

"Let us by, Mother," Jessie said, stepping forward.

"Not until I know where you're going."

"Mother . . ." Jessie said dangerously, but Jonny reached out and grabbed her by the shoulder.

"We don't know, Estella," Jonny said, struggling to keep his temper in check. "We just need to get out for a while. I can't face my father again . . . not yet. I . . . I need some time . . ."

Estella eyed him for a long moment. Then she nodded slowly. "That's a good idea. Nothing should be done in anger. I'll let you go, and I'll even cover for you with both of your fathers . . . at least for a while. But I want a promise in return."

"What?" Jonny asked suspiciously, his hands clenching into fists in spite of his best efforts to relax.

"You go out and calm down and then you come back home. You don't disappear. Will you do that?"

Jonny thought about it for a moment, then nodded. "Okay, you have our word . . ."

Estella crossed to him suddenly. Reaching up, she laid a hand on his cheek. As she looked up at him, he could see tears swimming in her eyes. "Come back to us, Jonny. We can't lose you . . ."

In the warmth of her obvious concern, he could feel some of his fury drain away. "We'll come back," he promised again. Then catching Jessie's hand, the two of them slipped out, leaving Estella standing alone in the middle of Jessie's room.

* * * * *

The sound of the surf was calming as Jonny and Jessie jogged along the narrow beach on the far end of the Compound property. They had made it safely out of the house and disappeared into the night without running into their fathers. Having snatched Jessie's coat, they ducked out the front door of the house just as they heard Benton and Race come in the back. Avoiding the wash of light from the windows, they sprinted for the nearby treeline. Once they reached the cover of the trees, they turned toward the coast as if reading each other's minds. The growing cold would take its toll quickly if they didn't find shelter, and they both knew a place that would provide that, as well as privacy. As they neared the edge of the Compound property, they turned from the waters edge and made their way to the non-descript passage that led to the lookout cave in the cliffs. Jonny and Hadji had found the cave shortly after the Quests had moved to the Maine Compound, and for years it had remained their secret place. Only five people knew of its existence and it still served as a place the young people could retreat to when they needed some undisturbed time alone. They climbed to the high cave in silence, using flashlights that were kept secreted in a hidden alcove for that purpose.

Jonny and Hadji had kept very little in the cave when they played there as children. A small trunk had stored an assortment of toys and an oil lantern. Since Jonny had first brought Jessie there, other items had found their way into the cave. Now, carefully mounted leather drapes could be closed to cut down on drafts through the two entrances to the cave, and a large, heavy rug covered much of the floor. Several oversized beanbag chairs provided seating and a kerosene heater could be lit to provide warmth in cold weather. A second trunk held an assortment of other items including blankets and pillows for the rare occasions when the two of them chose to sleep in the cave, and a metal container with a tight-fitting lid provided storage for an assortment of dried food. The play cave had been converted into a haven for the two of them away from the rest of the world.

Jessie moved to secure the drapes across the doors as Jonny lit the lanterns that now hung from three evenly spaced brackets on the cave walls. Jessie pulled one of the beanbag chairs out into the middle of the cave, as Jonny placed the heater nearby and lit it. Finally, the two of them sat down and looked at each other.

After a moment, Jessie's eyes fell and Jonny saw tears shimmering in them again. "I'm so sorry, Jonny," she said in a low voice.

"Why?" he asked. "You have nothing to be sorry for."

"This is my fault. I was the one who convinced you to . . ."

"You did not!" he interrupted her sharply. "The decision to make love was a mutual one, you know that. I wasn't pressured into anything. I wanted this as much as you did. And it was the right choice. Don't tell me you're having second thoughts now!?"

Her head snapped up. "NO! I'll never regret that decision. But Jonny, that choice caused this. You know it's true."

After a minute, he sighed and nodded. "Yes, I know."

"You tried to warn me," she continued. "You said your dad wasn't ready for this."

They were both silent, thinking about that. Finally Jonny shook his head. "But that's not the point, Jess. Whatever problems my father has with the things we've been doing, it still gave him no right to do what he did."

"Tell me what happened." Jonny told her about getting the letter from M.I.T. and his efforts to find out why he had been rejected. When he finished, she rubbed her forehead wearily. "So now they're going to separate us again."

Jonny stood abruptly and began to pace. "No! That's not an option."

"Then what are we going to do?"

"We could just leave."

"You promised my mom that we wouldn't."

"No, I didn't. I promised your mom that we would go out and calm down and then come back. I didn't say anything about not leaving again."

Jessie thought about that. Finally, she shook her head. "No, we can't do that."

"Why not?"

"Because if we try to walk out now, your father could call the cops and have us brought back here and there's nothing we could do about it. We aren't of legal age, yet."

"If he can find us."

"Do you really want to live on the run until we turn 21?"

Jonny sighed. "No, not really. But I'm not going to let him order me around to suit his own purposes until I'm 21 either." Jonny came back over and dropped down beside her again. Putting his arms around her, he drew her against his chest and laid his cheek against the top of her head. "So what are we going to do, Jess?"

"I don't know."

They sat there quietly for a long time in the slowly warming cave, allowing the quiet and privacy to leach away the hot emotions that drove them to this spot. Eventually, Jonny sat up and shed his coat, disposing of Jessie's at the same time. Settling back down into the chair, Jonny scrunched around until he found a comfortable, semi-reclined position. Jessie curled up beside him again and laid her head on his chest. Cuddling her, he finally asked, "How do you feel?"

She thought about it. "I . . . I don't really know. Hurt, I guess. I meant what I said to him, Jonny. I tried so very hard never to make him feel that I was trying to take you away. I know it's been hard for him, what with your mother dying and all . . ."

"You know, I loved my mother, too. But I'm starting to think that we cut him too damned much slack when it comes to Mom's death. He needs to just get over it. We all tiptoe around his feelings for her and try so hard not to upset him, and look what he does!" Jonny's voice was bitter. "All of my life he's harped on the idea that if I had a problem, I should always come to talk to him about it. There was nothing we couldn't discuss like adults. But what does he do the first time I do something he really doesn't like? Does he come to talk to me about it? Hell, no! He goes out and plays the all-powerful Benton Quest and makes a complete fool out of me. I sat there in Provost Brown's office spouting all of these wonderful, lofty ideals about how I would never trade on my father's power and influence, and the entire time Dr. Brown knew that was exactly what Dad had done to get me excluded. You should have seen his face, Jessie. I must have looked like a naive idiot."

Jessie levered herself up on an elbow to look down at him. "Jonny, he didn't do it deliberately. Your dad isn't like that. You know that. He . . . he's just . . . " she groped for the right word . . . "lost . . . right now."

"Are you saying he didn't know what he was doing?" Jonny laughed harshly. "No, Jess, he knew exactly what he was doing, and he knew exactly what he hoped to get out of it, too." Restlessly, he slid from her grasp and rose to begin pacing again. "I'm not his 'little boy' any more, no matter how desperately he wants to pigeonhole me into that role. The time has come for me make my own decisions, whether he likes it or not."

Jessie sighed, watching him pace. "I know. All I'm saying, Jonny, is that we shouldn't permanently condemn him because of this. He can't control the way he's feeling any more than we can."

Jonny stopped pacing and turned to look at her. "So you think we should forgive and forget? Go back to that house, apologize for losing our tempers and give in to what he wants? That would mean ending our relationship, being packed off to opposite ends of this country for four years, and being treated as though we were still ten years old."

"No," Jessie replied heavily, sitting up and crossing her legs. "I couldn't bear that."

"Neither could I."

"Then what do we do?" she asked helplessly.

Jonny stood in the middle of the cave for a long time, staring into empty space. Then he looked at her again and said slowly, "Do you remember what you said to me about what you would do if our parents tried to separate us?"

Jessie nodded, smiling a little at the memory, "Yeah . . . that I would follow you wherever you went and I'd make my own way, if I had to."

Dropping to his haunches beside her, Jonny cupped her cheek in his hand and rubbed it gently. "It looks like the shoe's on the other foot, love. And although you were the one who voiced it, I feel exactly the same way." His eyes grew serious and dark, "I won't be separated from you again. I'll follow you to the ends of the earth, if I have to . . . regardless of how my father feels about it." Jessie started to protest, but he placed a finger across her lips. "I'm not going to back away from this, Jess. He's always told me that every decision we make has repercussions and you should never do anything without giving it careful thought. He should have remembered that advice before he betrayed all the principles he's always claimed to believe in. Now it's his turn to live with the consequences."

Jessie sighed deeply and leaned her head against Jonny's chest, wrapping her arms around his waist. As he enveloped her in a fierce embrace, he heard her whisper sadly, "I think we'll all be living with the consequences . . . for the rest of our lives."

He had no response for that.