Firefly Lane Page 27


She eased around the standee and moved slowly forward. She was near the cereal aisle now, and for a split second she thought about Saturday morning breakfasts at the Mularkeys'. Mrs. M. used to let her have Quisp. Only on the weekends, though.

That was her last conscious thought before she passed out.

The drive to the hospital seemed to last forever. All the way there, through the stop-and-go city traffic, Kate sat in the backseat of the smelly cab and prayed that Tully would be okay. Finally, at just past eleven o'clock, they pulled up out front. She paid the driver and ran into the brightly lit lobby.

Johnny and Mutt were already there, slumped in uncomfortable plastic chairs, looking haggard. At her entrance, Johnny stood.

She ran to him. "I saw the news. What happened?"

"A man shot her in the shoulder and she kept on broadcasting. You should have seen her, Mularkey, she was brilliant. Fearless."

Kate heard the admiration in his voice, saw it in his eyes. Any other time it might have wounded her, that obvious pride; now it pissed her off. "That's why you're in love with her, isn't it? Because she has the guts you don't. So you put her in harm's way and get her shot and you're proud of her passion." Her shaking voice drew the last word out like a piece of poisoned taffy. "Screw the heroics. I wasn't talking about the news. I was asking about her life. Have you even asked how she is?"

He looked startled by her outburst. "She's in surgery. She—"

"Katie!"

She heard Chad call out her name and she turned, seeing him run into the lobby. They came together as naturally as wind and rain, clinging to each other.

"How is she?" he whispered against her ear, his voice as fragile as she felt.

She drew back. "In surgery. That's all I know. But she'll be fine. Bullets can't stop a storm."

"She's not as tough as she pretends to be. We both know that, don't we, Kate?"

She swallowed, nodded. In an awkward silence they stood together, bound by the invisible threads of their mutual concern. She saw it in his eyes, as clear as day; he did love Tully, and he was scared. "I better go call my mom and dad. They'll want to be here."

She waited for him to respond, but he just remained there, glassy-eyed, his hands flexing into fists at his sides like a gunslinger who might soon have to draw his weapon. With a tired smile, she walked away. As she passed Johnny, she couldn't help but say, "That's how real people help each other through hard times."

At the bank of pay phones, she put in four quarters and dialed home. When her dad answered—thank God it wasn't her mother; Kate would have lost it then—she gave him the news and hung up.

She turned around and Johnny was there, waiting for her. "I'm sorry."

"You should be."

"One of the things about this business, Katie, is that you learn to compartmentalize, to put the story first. It's a hazard of the trade."

"It's always about the story with people like you and Tully." She left him standing there and went to the sofa, where she sat down. Bowing her head, she prayed again.

After a moment she felt him come up beside her. When he didn't say anything, she looked up.

He didn't move, didn't even blink, but she could see how tense he was. He seemed to be holding on to his composure by a rapidly fraying thread. "You're tougher than you look, Mularkey."

"Sometimes." She wanted to say that love gave her strength, especially during a time like this, but she was afraid to even say the word while she was looking at him.

He sat down slowly beside her. "When did you get to know me so well?"

"It's a small office."

"That's not it. No one else knows me like you do." He sighed and leaned back. "I did put her in danger."

"She wouldn't have it any other way," she conceded. "We both know that."

"I know, but . . ."

When he let his sentence trail off, she looked at him. "Do you love her?"

He didn't respond at all, just sat there, leaning back, with his eyes closed.

She couldn't stand it. Now that she'd finally dared to ask the question, she wanted it answered. "Johnny?"

He reached over for her, put an arm around her shoulder, and drew her to him. She sank into the comfort he offered. It felt as natural as breathing being beside him like this, though she knew how dangerous that feeling was.

There, saying nothing more, they sat together through the long, empty hours of the night. Waiting.

Tully came awake slowly, taking stock of her surroundings: white acoustic-tile ceiling, bars of fluorescent lighting, silver rails on her bed, and a tray beside her.

Memories trickled into her consciousness: Beacon Hill. The mini-mart. She remembered the gun being pointed at her. And the pain.

"You'll do anything to get attention, won't you?" Kate stood by the door, wearing a pair of baggy UW sweatpants and an old Greek Week T-shirt. As she approached the bed, tears filled her eyes. She wiped them away impatiently. "Damn. I swore I wouldn't cry."

"Thank God you're here." Tully hit the button on her bed control until she was sitting up

"Of course I'm here, you idiot. Everyone is here. Chad, Mutt, Mom, Dad. Johnny. He and my dad have been playing cards for hours and talking about the news. Mom has made at least two new afghans. We've been so worried."

"Was I good?"

Kate laughed at that even as tears spilled down her cheeks. "That would be your first question. Johnny said you kicked Jessica Savitch's ass."

"I wonder if 60 Minutes will want to interview me."

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Kate closed the distance between them. "Don't scare me like that again, okay?"

"I'll try not to."

Before Kate could say anything, the door opened and Chad stood in the doorway, holding a pair of Styrofoam coffee cups. "She's awake," he said quietly, putting the cups down on the table beside him.

"She just opened her eyes. Of course, she's more interested in her chances of winning an Emmy than in her recovery." Kate looked down at her friend. "I'll leave you two alone for a minute."

"You won't leave, though?" Tully said.

"I'll come back later, when everyone else has gone home."

"Good," Tully said. "'Cause I need you."

As soon as Kate was gone, Chad moved closer. "I thought I'd lost you."

"I'm fine," she said impatiently. "Did you see the broadcast? What do you think?"

"I think you're not fine, Tully," he said softly. "You're farther from fine than anyone I know, but I love you. And all night I've been thinking about what my life would be without you and I don't like what I see."

"Why would you lose me? I'm right here."

"Marry me, Tully."

She almost laughed, thinking it was a joke; then she saw the fear in his eyes. He really was afraid of losing her. "You mean it," she said, frowning.

"I got offered a job at Vanderbilt in Tennessee. I want you to come with me. You love me, Tully, even if you don't know it. And you need me."

"Of course I need you. Is Tennessee a top forty market?"

His rough face crumpled at that; his smile faded. "I love you," he said again, softly this time and without the kiss to seal the words and give them weight.

The door behind him opened. Mrs. Mularkey stood there, arms akimbo, wearing a cheap jean skirt and a plaid blouse with a Peter Pan collar. She looked like an extra from Footloose. "The nurse said five more minutes with visitors and then they're throwing us all out."

Chad bent down and kissed her. It was a beautiful, haunting kiss that somehow managed both to bring them together and highlight how far apart they could be. "I loved you, Tully," he whispered.

Loved? Had he said loved? As in past tense? "Chad—"

He turned away from the bed. "She's all yours, Margie."

"Sorry to kick you out," Mrs. Mularkey said.

"Don't worry about it. I think my time was up. Goodbye, Tully." He walked past her and left the room, letting the door bang shut behind him.

"Hey, little girl," Mrs. Mularkey said.

Tully surprised herself by bursting into tears.

Mrs. Mularkey just stroked her hair and let her cry.

"I guess I was really scared."

"Shhh," Mrs. Mularkey said soothingly, drying her tears with a Kleenex. "Of course you were, but we're here now. You're not alone."

Tully cried until the pressure in her chest eased and the tears dried up. Finally, feeling better, she wiped her eyes and tried to smile. "Okay. I'm ready for my lecture now."

Mrs. Mularkey gave her The Look. "Your professor, Tallulah?"

"Ex-professor. That's why I never told you. And you'd say he was too old for me."

"Do you love him?"

"How would I know?"

"You'd know."

Tully stared up at Mrs. M. For once, she felt like the older of them, the one with more experience. The Mularkeys all saw love as a durable, reliable thing, easy to recognize. Tully might be young, but she knew they were wrong. Love could be more fragile than a sparrow's bone. But she wouldn't say it out loud. Instead, all she said was, "Maybe."

Overnight, Tully became a media sensation in Seattle. Newspaperman Emmett Watson took a break from ranting about the Californication of Washington State to write a column about courage under fire and how proud we should be of Tallulah Hart's commitment to the news. Radio station KJR dedicated a whole day of rock 'n' roll songs to the "news chick who used a microphone to stop a robbery," and even Almost Live, the local comedy show, aired a segment that made fun of the bumbling robber and showed Tully in a Wonder Woman outfit.

Flowers and balloons poured into her hospital room, many of them signed by people who normally made the news themselves. By Wednesday, she'd had to start donating the beautiful bouquets and arrangements to other patients. The nurses in charge of her learned how to be bodyguards and bouncers in addition to their normal jobs.

"So, you're the genius here. What do I do?" She sat up in bed, going through the pile of pink While You Were Out messages that Kate had brought with her from the office. It was an impressive list of names, but she was having trouble concentrating. Her arm hurt and the sling made even little tasks difficult. Worst of all, she couldn't stop thinking about Chad's out-of-left-field proposal. "I mean: Tennessee. I might as well be in Nebraska."

"For sure."

"How can I get to the top in a place like that? Or maybe that's exactly where I could get to the top fast and get noticed by the networks."

Kate sat at the other end of the bed, her legs stretched out alongside Tully's. "Look. We've been talking about this for, like, an hour. Maybe I'm not the best person to ask, but it seems to me that at some point you've got to at least mention love."

"Your mom said I'd know if I loved him." She looked down at her bare left hand, trying to imagine a diamond ring.

"You said I was supposed to shoot you if you even thought about marriage before thirty." Kate grinned. "You want to amend that?"

"Very funny."

The bedside phone rang. Still staring at her hand, she picked it up quickly, hoping it was Chad. "Hello?"

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