Firefly Lane Page 40


Tully didn't hear anything after producer. Edna's voice turned into white noise. She leaned forward. "Who is it?"

Edna pressed the phone to her chest. "Two guys from the affiliate in Seattle were injured in a bombing. Actually, the reporter was killed. The producer, John Ryan, is in critical condition." She went back to her call. "What was the reporter's name?"

Tully drew in a sharp breath. All she could think was: Johnny. She closed her eyes, but it didn't help; in the darkness she collected a dozen painful memories: sitting on the deck of his houseboat, talking about her future . . . dancing at that ridiculous nightclub in the seedy part of downtown all those years ago . . . seeing him look at Marah for the first time, with tears in his eyes. "Oh, my God," she said, getting to her feet. "I have to go."

Edna looked up at her, mouthed, "What is it?"

She could barely form the words; they burned her mouth. "Johnny Ryan is my best friend's husband."

"Really?" Edna looked at her, then said into the phone, "Maury, put Tully on the story. She has an in. I'll call you back," and hung up. "Sit down, Tully."

Numbly, she complied. Her legs had practically given out anyway. Those memories kept hammering her. "I need to help Katie," she muttered.

"It's a big story, Tully," Edna said.

Tully waved that off impatiently. "I don't care about that. She's my best friend."

"Don't care?" Edna said sharply. "Oh, you care. Everyone wants this assignment, but you have an in. Do you know what that means?"

Tully frowned, trying to switch gears from her worry. It seemed vaguely wrong, to make this about her career. "I don't know."

"Then you're not the woman I thought you were. Why can't you get an exclusive and comfort your friend?"

Tully thought about that. "When you put it that way . . ."

"What other way is there? You can get an interview that no one else will have. A thing like this will put you on the map. Could get you the news nook."

Tully couldn't help but be seduced by that. The news nook was a desk on the morning show's set from which the day's biggest news stories were covered. The recognition factor for anyone assigned there was high. Daily national exposure. Several people had made the jump from news nook to host. "And I can protect Kate from everything while I'm there."

"Exactly." Edna picked up the phone and dialed the number. "Hart can get us an exclusive, Maury. It's as good as done. I'll vouch for her." When she hung up, Edna's look was steely. "Don't let me down."

All the way from the restaurant and back to the office, Tully convinced herself that she'd done the right thing. At her desk, she threw her coat onto the back of her chair and called Kate. The phone rang and rang. Finally the answering machine picked up:

You've reached the Ryan household. Neither Johnny nor Kate can come to the phone right now, but if you'll leave a message we'll get back to you as soon as we can.

At the beep, Tully said, "Hey, Katie, it's me. I just heard—"

Kate picked up the phone and disabled the answering machine. "Hey," she said, sounding completely lost. "You got my message. Sorry about the machine. Those bloodsucking reporters won't leave me alone."

"Katie, how—"

"He's in a hospital in Germany. I'm catching a military flight in two hours. I'll call you when I land."

"Hardly. I'll meet you at the hospital."

"In Germany?"

"Of course. I'm not going to let you go through this alone. Your mom has Marah, right?"

"Right. You mean it, Tully?" Kate's voice lifted on the last question, took on an edge of hope.

"Best friends forever, isn't it?"

"No matter what." On that, Kate's voice broke. "Thanks, Tully."

Tully wanted to say, That's what friends are for, but the words stuck in her throat. All she could think of was the exclusive she'd promised Edna.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

For sixteen hours, Kate rode an emotional pendulum that swung between hope and despair. At first she'd focused on details—calling her parents, packing Marah's things, filling out paperwork. The busy-work had been a lifesaver; without it, there was nothing to do but worry. On the flight, she'd taken sleeping pills for the first time in her life, and though her sleep had been oozy, black, and restless, it was infinitely better than being awake.

Now she was being escorted to the hospital. As she approached the entrance, she saw reporters clotted out front. Someone in the crowd must have recognized her, because they turned in unison, like some suddenly roused beast, and pushed forward.

"Mrs. Ryan, what word do you have on his condition?"

"Is it a head injury?"

"Has he spoken—"

"—or opened his eyes?"

She didn't slow down. If there was one thing a producer's wife knew, it was how to move through the press. They were being as respectful as they knew how to be, given their profession. Although Johnny was one of them and they knew that it could have happened to any of them, a story was a story.

"No comment." She pushed through the crowd and entered the hospital. It was like all such institutions—blank walls, utilitarian flooring, crisply uniformed people bustling down wide corridors.

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They'd clearly been alerted to her arrival, because a heavyset woman in a white uniform and starched nurse's cap strode toward her, smiling sympathetically.

"You must be Mrs. Ryan," she said in heavily accented English.

"I am."

"I will take you to your husband's room. The doctor will arrive shortly to speak at you."

Kate nodded.

Thankfully, the woman didn't make small talk as they rode up the elevator. On the third floor, they strode past the nurses' station and turned into his room.

He looked frail and broken, like a child in his parents' bed. She stopped, realizing a second too late that she'd spent too much time imagining a reunion and not enough anticipating this reality. This man bore only the shallowest resemblance to her vibrant, handsome husband.

His head was sheathed in white bandages. The entire left side of his face was swollen and discolored; both his eyes were bandaged. Machines and lines and IVs were clustered around him.

The nurse patted her shoulder and gave her a gentle push toward the bed. "He is alive," she said. "This is what you should see when you look at him."

Kate took the most difficult step of her life. Until that moment, she hadn't even realized that she'd stopped moving. "He's usually so strong."

"He needs you to be strong now."

They were the words Kate needed to hear. She had a job here; the time for feeling too much and falling apart would come later when she was alone. "Thank you," she said to the nurse, and walked toward the bed.

Behind her, the door shut quietly, and she knew they were alone now, she and this man who was and wasn't her Johnny.

"This was not our deal," she said. "I distinctly remember that you promised to be okay. So, I'm going to assume you'll honor that." She wiped her eyes and leaned down to kiss his swollen cheek. "Mom and Dad send their prayers. Marah is with them right now. And Tully is flying over to be with us; you know how pissed she'll be if you don't give her your full attention. You might as well wake up now before she badgers you to death." She tripped over the last word, winced, straightening by sheer dint of will. "I didn't mean that," she whispered, gripping the bedrails tightly. "Can you hear me, John Ryan? Let me know you're in there." She reached down, took his hand in hers. "Squeeze my hand, baby. You can do it." Then: "Say something, damn it. I won't even yell at you for scaring the shit out of me. Not right away, anyway."

"Mrs. Ryan?"

Kate hadn't even heard the door open. When she turned, there was a man standing not more than ten feet away from her.

"I'm Dr. Carl Schmidt. I am in charge of your husband's care."

The polite thing to do would have been to let go, cross the room, and shake Dr. Schmidt's hand, and for all her life Kate had done things correctly, but now she couldn't move, couldn't pretend to be okay. "And?" was all she could say.

"He has suffered a serious head injury, as you no doubt know. He is heavily sedated right now, so we cannot do a comprehensive testing of his brain function. He received excellent medical care in Baghdad. The doctors there removed a section of his skull—"

"They what?"

"Removed a section of his skull to allow the brain to swell. Do not worry. This is most routine in such an injury."

She wanted to say that an appendectomy was routine, but didn't dare. "Why are his eyes bandaged?"

"We don't know yet if—"

The door behind him banged open, cracked against the wall. Tully burst into the room—there was no other word for it—and stopped dead. She was breathing hard and her face was suspiciously bright. "Sorry it took me so long, Katie. No one would tell me where the hell you were."

"I am sorry," the doctor said. "It is family only in here."

"She is family," Kate said, reaching for Tully's hand. Tully batted away her hand and pulled her into a hug; they cried together, holding on, until finally Kate drew back, wiping her eyes.

The doctor said, "We do not know yet if he will be blind. These are things we will know if he wakes up."

"When he wakes up," Tully said, but her voice was unsteady.

"The next forty-eight hours will tell us much news," the doctor said seamlessly, as if he hadn't been interrupted.

Forty-eight hours. It sounded like a lifetime.

"Keep talking to him," the doctor said. "This couldn't hurt, yes?"

Kate nodded, stepping aside as the doctor moved to the bed and checked Johnny. He made a few notes on the chart and then left.

The minute he was gone, Tully took Kate by the shoulders, gave her a little shake. "We are not going to believe any bad stuff. Herr Doctor doesn't know Johnny Ryan. We do. He promised to come home to you and Marah and he's a man who keeps his promises."

Tully's mere presence buoyed Kate, kept her afloat. The strength that had been so quick to leave her came back. "You'd better listen to her, Johnny. You know what a bitch she can be when she's wrong."

For the next six hours they stayed there, beside his bed. Kate would talk for as long as she could; when she ran out of steam or started to cry, Tully would step in, picking up the conversation.

Somewhere in the middle of the night—Kate had no conception of what time it was—they went down to the empty cafeteria and bought food from vending machines and sat down at a table near the window.

Alone but for the empty tables, they stared at each other.

"What are you going to do about the press?"

Kate looked up. "What do you mean?"

Tully shrugged and sipped her coffee. "You saw the reporters out front. He's a big story, Katie."

"The nurse told me they tried to take pictures of him as he was being wheeled in. One reporter even tried to bribe one of the orderlies on the floor to get a picture of his bandaged face. Cockroaches. No offense."

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