Firefly Lane Page 12


Cloud took a stumbling step forward. The sadness in her eyes was unmistakable, but Tully didn't care. Her mother's pseudo-emotions came and went like the sun in Seattle. "Look at me, Tully."

"I'm looking."

"No. Look. I can't help you."

"But I need you."

"That's the fucking tragedy of it," her mother said, taking a long drag on the cigarette and blowing smoke out a few seconds later.

"Why?" Tully asked. She was going to add, Don't you love me? but before she could form the pain into words, the funeral let out and black-clad people swarmed into the parking lot. Tully glanced sideways, just long enough to dry her tears. When she turned back, her mother was gone.

The woman from social services was as dry as a twig. She tried to say the right things, but Tully noticed that she kept glancing at her watch as she stood in the hallway outside Tully's bedroom.

"I still don't see why I need to pack my stuff. I'm almost eighteen. Gran has no mortgage on this house—I know 'cause I paid the bills this year. I'm old enough to live alone."

"The lawyer is expecting us," was the woman's only answer. "Are you nearly ready?"

She placed the stack of Kate's letters in her suitcase, closed the lid, and snapped it shut. Since she couldn't actually form the words I'm ready, she simply grabbed the suitcase, then slung her macramé purse over her shoulder. "I guess so."

"Good," the woman said, spinning briskly around and heading for the stairs.

Tully took one last, lingering look around her bedroom, noticing as if for the first time things she'd overlooked for years: the lavender ruffled bed linens and white twin bed, the row of plastic horses—dusty now—that lined the windowsill, the Mrs. Beasley doll on the top of the dresser, and the Miss America jewelry box with the pink ballerina on top.

Gran had decorated this room for the little girl who'd been dumped here all those years ago. Every item had been chosen with care, but now they'd all be boxed up and stored in the dark, along with the memories they elicited. Tully wondered how long it would be before she could think of Gran without crying.

She closed the door behind her and followed the woman through the now-quiet house, down the steps outside, to the street in front of house, where a battered yellow Ford Pinto was parked.

"Put your suitcase in the back."

Tully did as she was told and got into the passenger seat.

When the lady started up the car, the stereo came on at an ear-shattering level. It was David Soul's "Don't Give Up on Us." She immediately turned it down, mumbling, "Sorry about that."

Tully figured it was as good a song to apologize for as any, so she just shrugged and looked out the window.

"I'm sorry about your grandmother, if I haven't said that already."

Tully stared at her weird reflection in the window. It was like looking at a negative version of her face, colorless and insubstantial. The way she felt inside, actually.

"By all accounts she was an exceptional woman."

Tully didn't answer that. She couldn't have found much of a voice anyway. Ever since the encounter with her mother, she'd been dry inside. Empty.

"Well. Here we are."

They parked in front of a well-kept Victorian home in downtown Ballard. A hand-painted sign out front read: BAKER AND MONTGOMERY, ATTORNEYS AT LAW.

It took Tully a moment to get out of the car. By the time she did, the woman was giving her a soft, understanding smile.

"You don't need to bring your suitcase."

"I'd like to, thanks." If there was one thing Tully understood, it was the importance of a packed bag.

The woman nodded and led the way up the grass-veined concrete walkway to the white front door. Inside the overly quaint space, Tully took a seat in the lobby, close to the empty receptionist's desk. Cutesy drawings of big-eyed kids lined the ornately papered walls. At precisely four o'clock, a pudgy man with a balding head and horn-rimmed glasses came to get them.

"Hello, Tallulah. I'm Elmer Baker, your Grandmother Hart's attorney."

Tully followed him to a small upstairs room with two overstuffed chairs and an antique mahogany desk littered with yellow legal pads. In the corner, a standing fan buzzed and thumped and sent warm air spinning toward the door. The social worker took a seat by the window.

"Here. Here. Sit down, please," he said, moving to his own chair behind the elegant desk.

"Now, Tallulah—"

"Tully," she said quietly.

"Quite right. I recall Ima saying you preferred Tully." He put his elbows on the desk and leaned forward. His buglike eyes blinked behind the thick magnifying lenses of his glasses. "As you know, your mother has refused to take custody of you."

It took all her strength to nod, even though last night she'd practiced a whole monologue about how she should be allowed to live alone. Now, here, she felt small and much too young.

"I'm sorry," he said in a gentle voice, and Tully actually flinched at the words. She'd come to truly loathe the stupid, useless sentiment.

"Yeah," she said, fisting her hands at her sides.

"Ms. Gulligan here has found a lovely family for you. You'll be one of several displaced teens in their care. The excellent news is that you'll be able to continue in your current school placement. I'm sure that makes you happy."

"Ecstatic."

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Mr. Baker looked momentarily nonplussed by her response. "Of course. Now. As to your inheritance. Ima left all her assets—both homes, the car, the bank accounts, and stocks—to you. She has left instructions for you to continue with the monthly payments to her daughter, Dorothy. Your grandmother believed it was the best and only way to keep track of her. Dorothy has proven to be very reliable at keeping in touch when there's money coming." He cleared his throat. "Now . . . if we sell both homes, you won't have to worry about finances for quite some time. We can take care—"

"But then I won't have a home at all."

"I'm sorry about that, but Ima was very specific in her request. She wanted you to be able to go to any college." He looked up. "You're going to win the Pulitzer someday. Or that's what she told me."

Tully couldn't believe she was going to cry again, and in front of these people. She popped to her feet. "I need to go to the restroom."

A frown pleated Mr. Baker's pale forehead. "Oh. Certainly. Downstairs. First door to the left of the front door."

Tully got up from her chair, grabbed her suitcase, and made her halting way to the door. Once in the hallway, she shut the door behind her and leaned against the wall, trying not to cry.

Foster care could not be her future.

She glanced down at the date on her Bicentennial wristwatch.

The Mularkeys would be home tomorrow.

CHAPTER SEVEN

The drive home from British Columbia seemed to take forever. The air conditioner in the station wagon was broken, so warm air tumbled from the useless vents. Everyone was hot and tired and dirty. And still Mom and Dad wanted to sing songs. They kept bugging the kids to sing along.

Kate couldn't stand how lame it was. "Mom, will you please tell Sean to quit touching my shoulder?"

Her brother burped and started laughing. The dog barked wildly.

In the front seat, Dad leaned forward and turned on the radio. John Denver's voice floated through the speakers with "Thank God I'm a Country Boy." "That's all I'm singing, Margie. If they don't want to join in . . . fine."

Kate returned to her book. The car bounced so much the words danced on the page, but that didn't matter; not with as many times as she'd read The Lord of the Rings.

I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things.

"Katie. Kathleen."

She looked up. "Yeah?"

"We're home," her dad said. "Put that dang book down and help us unload the car."

"Can I call Tully first?"

"No. You'll unpack first."

Kate slapped her book shut. For seven days she'd been waiting to make that call. But unloading the car was more important. "Fine. But Sean better help."

Her mother sighed. "You just worry about yourself, Kathleen."

They piled out of the smelly station wagon and began the end-of-vacation ritual. By the time they finished, it was dark. Kate put the last of her clothes into the pile on the laundry room floor, started the first load, then went to find her mom, who was sitting on the sofa with Dad. They were leaning against each other, looking dazed.

"Can I call Tully now?"

Dad consulted his watch. "At nine-thirty? I'm sure her grandmother would really appreciate that."

"But—"

"Goodnight, Katie," her dad said firmly, looping his arm around Mom and pulling her close.

"This is so not fair."

Mom laughed. "Whoever told you life would be fair? Now go to bed."

For almost four hours Tully stood at the corner of her house, watching the Mularkeys unload their car. She'd thought about running up the hill a dozen times, just showing up, but she wasn't ready for the boisterousness of the whole family just yet. She wanted to be alone with Kate, someplace quiet where they could talk.

So she waited until the lights went out and then crossed the street. In the grass beneath Kate's window, she waited another thirty minutes, just to be sure.

Off to her left somewhere, she could hear Sweetpea nickering at her and pawing at the ground. No doubt the old mare was looking for company, too. During the camping trip a neighbor had fed the horse, but that wasn't the same as being loved.

"I know, girl," Tully said, sitting down. She wrapped her arms around her bent legs, hugging herself. Maybe she should have called instead of stalking them like this. But Mrs. Mularkey might have told her to come by tomorrow, that they were tired from their long drive, and Tully couldn't wait anymore. This loneliness was more than she could handle by herself.

Finally, at eleven o'clock, she stood up, brushed the grass off her jeans, and threw a piece of gravel at Kate's window.

It took four tosses before her friend stuck her head out the window. "Tully!" Kate ducked back into her room and slammed the window shut. It took less than a minute for her to appear at the side of the house. Wearing a Bionic Woman nightshirt, her old black-rimmed glasses, and her retainer, Kate ran for Tully, arms outstretched.

Tully felt Kate's arms wrap around her and for the first time in days, she felt safe.

"I missed you so much," Kate said, tightening her hold.

Tully couldn't answer. It was all she could do not to cry. She wondered if Kate knew, really knew, how important their friendship was to her. "I got our bikes," she said, stepping back, looking away so Kate wouldn't see her moist eyes.

"Cool."

Within minutes they were on their way, flying down Summer Hill, their hands outstretched to catch the wind. At the bottom of the hill, they ditched their bikes in the trees and walked down the long and winding road to the river. All around them trees chattered among themselves; the wind sighed, and leaves fluttered down from branches in an early sign of the coming autumn.

Kate flopped down in their old spot, her back rested against the mossy log, her feet stretched out in the grass that had grown tall in their absence.

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