Ira Rosenberg put down his knife and fork carefully on his plate and turned to the small pile of letters he'd stacked beside him on the table. Most of this morning's post seemed to be circulars, but there was one letter with the University stamp and addressed to his wife, which he passed to her graciously. That left one; a bill by the looks of it.
Slitting the envelope open neatly, he withdrew the stiff paper inside and unfolded it. The logo at the top was from the telephone company, he noted; then his eyes slid down to the total written boldly at the bottom. He blinked in amazement.
"Oy, this can't be right. It's almost double the last bill!"
"Let me see, dear." Sheila held out her hand for the bill, and frowned in concentration. "It's the extra line we just had installed for Willow's computer. Look, the rentals are the same... it's just the usage costs that are so high."
They both looked down the table to where their only daughter sat engrossed in the book she was reading. Ira had long since despaired of ever separating her from her library; she seemed symbiotically bonded to the books she carried everywhere. He was sure that if paper were waterproof she would read in the shower. Eventually Sheila had insisted, in the face of stubborn resistance and some tears, that Willow should at least stop reading while she ate; but the moment the meal was over, her nose would be straight back between the pages. If she was listening to her parents now, she gave no sign of it.
"What on earth has she been doing?"
"Going online, I imagine, dear. That's why we gave her the system, after all. We agreed it would be useful for her homework."
"Homework? Nobody does this amount of homework. If you ask me, she's been - what's the word - 'surfing' the Internet looking for pornography. Probably downloading plenty of it too, looking at this bill! Disgusting."
Willow definitely heard that, if the way her face suddenly turned a hot, burning red was anything to go by.
"Ira Rosenberg, how dare you say that!"
Willow did glance up then, in pleased relief that her mother was defending her. Except...
"It's not disgusting at all! You should be proud that your daughter is learning to accept and understand her body! You know full well that masturbation is a perfectly normal activity for a girl of her age. Would you rather she expressed her sexuality by going out and having sex with boys and getting pregnant and diseased, rather than sitting perfectly safely in her computer chair in her own bedroom and masturbating?" Now she looked directly at her daughter, who was starting to fear that the book she was trying desperately to hide behind would catch fire from the heat radiating from her face. "You're a good girl, Willow."
"Uh, thanks Mom."
Willow wondered sickly whether she could somehow use the power of her brain to crack the Earth open and sink into it, down and out of sight. She was obviously mortified by her mother using the... the 'M' word in front of her - that she even knew... and, and in her computer chair rather than, um, in bed under the covers? Eww. That was so flagrant and open and exposed... (A secret part of Willow flared up suddenly at that thought, but she hastily shoved the feeling back down far into her subconscious.) But there was something even worse to contemplate: which was the horrifying, shameful realisation that her parents both assumed she'd been looking at porn in the Internet.. and she hadn't.
Honestly, the idea had never even crossed her mind.
And she was so ashamed of that, because it made her look stupid and young, and Mom was going on about how she was so clever for learning about her body and all that stuff, and Willow obviously wasn't clever otherwise she'd have thought of it herself, and she felt tears prickling the corners of her eyes; and she couldn't explain, she couldn't, because Mom and Dad would be disappointed in her and she didn't want to hurt them, so she'd have to lie and pretend that yes, that's what she'd been doing, and...
"Now, Willow. I hope that whatever sites you've been looking at are woman-friendly and sex-positive? There's some quite unwholesome material out there; one of my graduate students researched it for her thesis... perhaps I should give you a copy? And I think maybe I should have a look at what you've been downloading myself..."
"No!!" Willow's rejection was so frantic she even dropped her precious book on the floor. "No, I mean, honest, Mom, you don't need to. I'm very friendly to women, uh, I mean I'm positively sexed, uh... I mean, I mean what you said. I wouldn't even want to look at anything disgusting 'cause... 'cause it would disgust me. Obviously." She forced herself into her biggest, beaming you-can-trust-me smile. "I'll be very careful. And I really would like to see that thesis?"
Sheila looked at her daughter consideringly, then nodded and turned to her husband. He in turn fixed Willow with a scowl, and said, "I can't have you running up the telephone bill at all hours of the day and night. You'll be allowed one hour per day, no more, understand?" Willow pouted, and he reluctantly added, "Three hours on Sundays or public holidays." Then without a further word he picked up his copy of the newspaper and turned to the Foreign News section. The matter, in his eyes, was settled.
"Willow, your father and I are trusting you by treating you as an adult. Please don't let us down."
"No, Mom. Thanks, Mom." She bent down to pick up her book. "Please may I be excused?"
At her mother's nod she clutched the book and fled out of the room, thundering up the stairs to the sanctuary of her bedroom.
It was only when she got there that she realised what her parents might be assuming she was going to do there... and she almost went back downstairs again.
But only almost.