Hi people (whoever's still reading this), I'm really sorry for not updating in forever. No, I mean it. Really. I reread the entire story and decided it needs some MAJOR editing. My writing style has really changed over the past year, so I hope no one's really deterred by this change. But I've also decided to bring this story back to life now that I'm procrastinating with writing my own original novel. I know this chapter doesn't really add onto the suspense of the last chapter, but I think it really accentuates the love Mike has for his daughter. Besides, I don't like to think of Maggie as the stone-cold bitch she's portrayed as in the movie, so I decided to add this bit to round out her character. More updates will come as I edit the story. Some parts of the plot will be changed, so please bear with me if some of the transitions between chapters are confusing. Actually, leave a review letting me now if you want the updates chapter by chapter or until I'm done rewriting everything up to the point where I left off. Please review, it makes my world a "dark paradise". Sorry, Lana reference. I couldn't help myself. :-)

Disclaimer: I do not own 17 Again.

1997

"Gotcha, Alex!" I exclaim with glee. My five-year-old little brother glances around him in bewilderment. While he's distracted, I exploit his vulnerability by dumping a handful of gloopy wet sand on his head. At the sight of his disgusted expression, I giggle, "Now Alex, why would you poop on your head?"

Blinking coarse grains of sand out of his blue eyes, he sulks, "'S not funny, Maggie." His incredulous attitude only has me laughing harder. After a minute of my constant hiccupping laughter, Alex's mild exasperation turns into full-blown annoyance. He splashes salty ocean water at me. "Shut up!" He whines. (Though his foot is underwater, I know he stomped it.)

"Ooh," I croon flamboyantly, "Alex said a no-no word." I cut my glance over to where Mommy and Daddy are sprawled out on the beach, entangled together comfortably per usual. Daddy has his arm encircled around Mommy's waist.

Craning his neck in the same direction as me, he peers over at our parents, who have begun kissing passionately. Under his shaggy dirty blonde hair, the color drains from Alex's face, his cheeks as pale as talcum powder when he realizes my intent. "No, Maggie! Don't!" He begs, panicky, whimpering like a kicked puppy.

"Well," I deliberate, Alex clinging to my every word, "too late. I'm gonna tell." I begin to wade back to the shore, but Alex's hand clamps around my freckled wrist in an iron-grip. I struggle against the confinements of his slender fingers, twisting my body so I'm facing him. I secure a firm hand on his chest, shoving us both back into the rampant surf. We wrestle in the pristine, cerulean depths of the Caribbean; the warm water feels like moist velvet against our slightly sunburned skin. Though we're kicking and hitting each other with every ounce of our strength, we're both laughing, our twinkling eyes as radiant as the smiles on our faces.

His head pops above water so he can catch his breath. I swim around Alex slowly, darting amongst his legs like a curious minnow in the waist-deep water. He turns in circles, trying to decipher my antics; his brows are puckered inquisitively. Iridescent when beams of sunlight strike the surface, the rippling water distorts Alex's pale face, stretching it into a mass of Silly Putty. My body sinks to the sand, its grainy texture like wet sugar against my exposed flesh. I crawl on my belly in-between Alex's spindly legs, which are nothing more than sticks with meat hanging off the bone.

Alex takes my submissive position as an invitation to step on my back, his toes digging into my spine. I smile, because even though I just turned seven, I'm already too smart for my brother's own good. I jolt upward, startling Alex. He tumbles off of my back into the turquoise coils of the current. While he's down and his wide-open eyes are burning with salt, I lunge at him like a vicious predator. Hooking my fingers in the waistline of his flame-print swim trunks, I pull them down. His pasty tummy soon isn't the only skin exposed.

When Alex can feel more ocean on his butt than swim trunks, he loses his nerve. He detaches himself from my grasp, kicking to the surface. I swim up after him, my head breaking the surface gracefully, my mouth inhaling the balmy air with a muted gasp. Alex emerges with whooping coughs, choking on salt water; I'm too busy giggling to think about being worried. It takes Alex two minutes before he can speak, his voice scratched from his chafed throat. On the verge of tears, he whimpers, "That was so mean, Maggie. I don't think I wanna play with you anymore."

A part of me feels bad for upsetting Alex, but it is concealed behind my masquerade of obnoxious laughter. His puffy, red-rimmed eyes are funny to me somehow. And the booger peeking out of his left nostril definitely isn't helping.

Fat tears cascading down his cheeks, Alex's pupils suddenly dilated to the size of quarters. Noticing his discomfort, I halt in my cackling and probe seriously, "What?"

Alex swallows a lump congealed in his throat, but still no words come. Instead, he indicates with a simple point over my shoulder, towards the horizon. I pivot slowly, the tepid water swirling around my hips like a swishy skirt. I see why he is so anxious - a six foot wave is barreling towards us, the crest of it bubbling in white foam like saliva on a rabid dog's lips. As the colossal wave rapidly advances on us, all I can think to say is: "Alex, pull up your pants!"

He must oblige, because his hands plunk in the water and never make a reappearance. Inch by inch, his skinny body gravitates towards mine until I can feel the edge of his elbow graze my ribcage. Then the wave consumes us in a torrent of churning water.

I feel like I'm in a washing machine as I'm tossed around. Brackish sea water is flooding my mouth, and I'm smothered by all the salt, my lungs on fire for air. The force of the wave sends me crashing with the ocean floor. Fragments of eroded seashells scrape my arms, and gritty sand crunches between my gnashing teeth. I do a somersault, legs over my head, hair drifting in front of my eyes like black seaweed. There's immense pressure pounding on my head, a dull ringing vibrating my eardrums.

I'm groaning as bright sunlight scorches my corneas and I feel the warmth of the afternoon tingle on my damp skin. I can feel solid sand under my back. I'm breathing normally again as oxygen swirls in and out of my mouth, my chest rising and falling with every inhale and exhale. The sky overhead is a tropical pink, the glaring white sun like a rounded opal. As I hoist myself into a sitting position with my hand, my head swims with vertigo. I pinch my temples between my index finger and thumb with my free hand until I stop seeing two of everything. My hair bedraggled with salt water and ribbons of sand, I scavenge the beach for my brother. Several yards away I see him scramble to his feet, nearly falling over under the turmoil of the surf before quickly regaining his balance.

Using my knees as a boost, I thrust myself upright. Sand plastered to my damp skin rubs between my thighs as I run to Alex, chafing like steel wool as it also scourers my crotch painfully. "Alex!" I yelp elatedly, catching him in the crook of my arm and pulling him into a hug. He accepts the embrace, but peers at me in confusion, obviously deterred by my smothering sisterly affection. To diffuse the awkwardness, I pin his head under my elbow and give him a playful noogie. Honestly, I'm just so happy neither he or I got sucked out to sea.

"Are you guys having fun?" Alex and I turn around to the source of the voice, smiles evident on our faces. Our daddy, Mike O'Donell, is silhouetted in the sun's ethereal light. His piercing blue eyes are like two chips of ice, with an opaque sapphire halo around his irises. The gentle sea breeze has blown his dark brown curls across his forehead, and his exposed bellybutton makes me giggle. The silver metal of his wedding band glints subtly on his ring finger.

"Yes," Alex and I reply simultaneously. A tuft of Alex's hair is stuck upright in a teased cowlick. Daddy chuckles at our sandy bodies, our dripping swimsuits hanging off of said bodies like a second layer of peeling skin. I charge towards Daddy, and he scoops me up in his muscular arms. Tenderly, he kisses me on the crown of my head, and I recline my head against him, pressing my cheek into his shoulder.

I whisper into his ear, "I'm a gymnast now, Daddy."

He scrutinizes me teasingly, narrowing his eyes. "Oh, really? Last time I checked you can't even do a front roll."

"Can too," I huff indignantly, swatting his arm lightly with my hand.

Though his expression is solemn, the twinkle in his eyes betrays his amusement. He prosecutes, "If you're so good at gymnastics, then why did we spend a fortune on lessons?"

"I was perfecting my technique," I sniff haughtily. "When the wave hit me, I did a REAl cartwheel. I mean, my legs went over my head and everything. But you don't have'ta worry, Daddy, 'cause it didn't hurt except when I swallowed water. Did you know salt hurts your throat?"

My close encounter with drowning normally would've had him running to Mommy for advice ("Scarlet, should we call a doctor... but what if she accidently inhaled a squid?"), but my rambling must have tickled his funny bone because he couldn't stop laughing. "A gymnast," he muses. "How about you show me a trick?" I try to sift through the words to understand their meaning, but my Daddy is cunningly fast before I can come to the obvious conclusion. As my eyes flutter closed for the brief moment I blink, he readjusts his grip on my tiny waist so I'm dangling upside-down like an uprooted plant. I can feel my cheeks redden as all the blood in my body flows to my head; there is a slight pressure lurking behind my eyes.

I'm shrieking in delight as I wriggle around fitfully. Daddy, although stubborn, relents and finally pulls me upright so I'm secure against his chest. I place a hand on his heart, so I can feel its comforting and steady thump thump. It's the very rhythm that lets me know everything's okay, because Daddy's okay. He transfers my hand to his lips so he can kindly kiss my fingers. Did you know I love my daddy? I know he loves me, too. The way he looks at me with so adoration conveys his love so much more accurately than any words ever could.

"Daddy!" Alex pipes from several feet below, demanding Daddy's attention with his arms extended expectantly.

Daddy gently sets me down back on the powdery sand that slides through my toes as easily as dewy grass. "Hey, buddy," he grins, bending down to pick up my brother. He musses Alex's hair, which elicits a giggle from the usually serious Alex. "How about a kiss for your ol' pops?" Chin propped on his fist pensively, Alex contemplates the request for a moment, but Daddy's pleading expression finally extracts a hesitant peck on the cheek.

Even though I was just held, I already miss Daddy's warmth, so I'm complaining. "I want back up."

Daddy's glance bounces from Alex to me. He pretends to groan in exasperation, but he shifts Alex to his left arm. "You two are lucky you're featherweights and I'm in such great shape, otherwise I'd break my back." Kneeling, he allows me to climb into the concave of his arm, rising to his full height only when I am securely fastened in his grasp. He adds, "It's also an advantage that I'm so young..." He trails off, his good-natured smile mutating into a pained grimace, as if he has been reminded of something unpleasant.

I ask diffidently, "Daddy? Are you okay?" Alex looks on with a nervous scrunching of his nose.

My question breaks Daddy from his reverie, but the smile he puts on display is forced through gritted teeth. "Of course," he reassures us, hugging me and Alex closer to him. "You guys are my everything. I couldn't be happier." Even though I want so desperately to believe these words are true, I can't help but feel that what Daddy just said is a lie as transparent as the ectoplasm of a phantom.

But I kiss his cheek anyway, because I want terribly for those forged words to be true. Alex follows suit, and soon we're berating Daddy's face with an onslaught of kisses. Whatever sadness Daddy just unearthed is swiftly replaced with boisterous laughter as our lips graze his cheeks, nose, chin, and forehead. Tucking us under his arms, he darts into the sea. An oncoming wave crashes against his chest, deluging me and Alex with the salty spray like a broken shower faucet. I watch in fascination as drops of water dribble down the firm bumps on Daddy's chest. "Are you sick?" I voice my concerned curiosity. He's always had these weird bumps, babbling on about how hard he works to get them, but I can't help but wonder if they're some sort of parasite.

Daddy peers down at me in confusion. "What do you mean, Mags?"

"I mean those things," I repeat, indicating with my eyes to the bumps again.

Daddy's stare sweeps down to his chest. He throws his head back and laughs. "Maggie, those are called abdominal muscles."

"A-abd-mi what?" My brain spins a million miles a minute, a puzzle missing the final piece, because I can't even begin to pronounce a word that big.

"Just call them abs."

"Abs?" I mystify. "Why would you want them?"

His voice muffled by the distance between us, Alex interjects, "I think they're ugly."

"Well, you two," Daddy enlightens, repressing a chuckle, "A lot of people actually want them. They're sort of a... trophy... for adults."

"Then why can't everyone have them?" I challenge.

"I guess..." Daddy pauses for a moment, searching every corner of his mind to formulate an answer that would make sense to young children. "You know, you have to work out all the time. Grown up people have jobs, so they don't have time. Many people don't eat right either and..."

"But you eat cake, like, ten times a day!" I interrupt his explanation. "Healthy food is carrots and other yucky stuff. How come you got abs and eat junk all the time?"

"The perks of being twenty-five." Daddy supplies a curt answer, kissing me on the forehead once, twice, to silence my tirade of unspoken questions.

Squinting my eyes, I scrutinize his face illuminated in a golden halo by the sun. I sneak one more peek at his abs, and finally admit begrudgingly, "You're still handsome with the abs."

Daddy chuckles, "I'm glad you think so, Mags. My little girl's opinion matters more than the entire world." A smile tugs the corners of my mouth upward, and within seconds I'm beaming wider than the moon.

Alex huffs impatiently, "Are we gonna go swimming or what?"

"Of course, big guy," Daddy concedes. "We wouldn't want to waste all that money Uncle Ned invested into this vacation, now would we?" As Daddy wades farther into the water, Alex and I cling to his body. The water feels like a silken blanket; the intense humidity is bearable with the refreshing temperature of the Atlantic Ocean.

"I like the water," I tell Daddy. Alex has climbed off of Daddy's back and is now treading water a foot away from us, kicking his feet frantically. Daddy gathers me into his arms, and begins slowly twirling me around in a circle. Sweat glistens on his face, but his eyes shine brighter than any perspiration could. I laugh freely, loving the way the water tickles my skin like feathers.

Daddy looks delighted as he proposes, "So you must like Barbados?"

"Barbados? What's that?"

"It's the island we're staying on. Look around and tell me what you think."

I do, pivoting my gaze so I can absorb the details of my surroundings. Curved palm trees with vibrant emerald leaves dip towards the white-gold sand, a repository of coconuts littered around their trunks. People caramelized with bronze tans and clad in colorful bathing suits lay sprawled out on towels, chatting amongst each other, reading quietly, or simply basking in the sun's heat. Strange solid black birds with beady yellow eyes and a crooked tail hobble along the beach, on the hunt for a French fry buried at an abandoned beach encampment. The sailboats on the horizon are thumbprints on glass.

"It's beautiful," I gasp, breathless. If it's even possible, Daddy's smile widens. He pulls me up out of the water so my face is nearly pressed against his. I stare into his eyes, him staring right back. Blue on blue. "I love Barbados, but not as much as I love being with you." I confess meekly, hiding behind a curtain of my black hair.

Daddy kisses me on the cheek and makes a confession of his own, although it's not really a secret because I knew it all along. "I love you so much, Maggie."