Firefly Lane Page 66


"Do you still take off part of November and all of December?"

"So that my crew can enjoy the holidays with their families?" she said bitterly. "I do."

"I know you're usually busy with that friend of yours—"

"Not this year."

"Good. Then maybe you'd like to come to the Antarctic with me. I'm doing a documentary on global warming. I think it's an important story, Tully. Someone of your stature would get it watched."

The offer was a Godsend. A moment before she'd been wanting to get away from her own life. You couldn't get much farther than Antarctica. "How long will we be gone?"

"Six weeks; seven at the most. You could fly back and forth, but it's a hell of a trip."

"Sounds perfect. I need to get away. How soon can we leave?"

Naked, Kate stood in front of the mirror in her bathroom, studying her body. All her life she'd been engaged in a guerrilla-type war with her reflection. Her thighs had always been too fleshy, no matter how much weight she lost, and her tummy pooched out after three kids. She did sit-ups at the gym, but still her middle sagged. She'd stopped wearing sleeveless shirts about three years ago—arm jiggle. And her breasts . . . Since the boys' births, she'd started wearing heavier-molded, less sexy bras, that was for sure, and she tightened the straps to pull her boobs into place.

Now, though, when she looked at herself, she saw how little all of that mattered, what a waste of time it had been.

She stepped closer, practicing the words she'd chosen, rehearsing. If ever there was a moment in her life that required strength, this was it.

She reached for the pile of clothes on the counter and began dressing. She'd chosen a pretty pink cashmere V-neck sweater—a Christmas present from the kids last year—and a worn, soft-as-lambskin pair of Levi's. Then she brushed her hair, pulled it away from her face and made a ponytail. She even put on some makeup. It was important that she look healthy for what was to come. When there was nothing else she could do, she left the bathroom and went into her bedroom.

Johnny, who'd been seated on the end of the bed, stood quickly and turned to her. She could see how hard he was trying to be strong. Already his eyes were bright.

It should have made her cry, too, that shiny evidence of his love and fear, but somehow it made her stronger. "I have cancer," she said.

He already knew it, of course. The past few days, spent waiting for the test results, had been agonizing. Last night they'd finally gotten the doctor's call. They'd held hands while she gave them the information, assuring each other before she spoke that it would be fine. But it hadn't been fine; not even close to fine.

I'm sorry, Kate . . . stage four . . . inflammatory breast cancer . . . aggressive . . . already spread . . .

At first Kate had been furious—she'd always done everything right, looked for lumps, gotten her mammograms—and then the fear set in.

Johnny took it even harder than she did, and she saw quickly that she needed to be strong for him. Last night, they'd lain awake all night, holding each other, crying, praying, promising each other they'd get through it. Now, though, she wondered how they'd do it.

She went to him. He curled his arms around her and held her as tightly as he could, and still it wasn't close enough.

"I have to tell them."

"We have to." He stepped back slightly, loosened his hold just enough to look down at her. "Nothing will change. Remember that."

"Are you kidding? They're going to take away my breasts." Her voice caught on that; fear was a crack in the road that tripped her up. "Then they'll poison and burn me. And all that is supposed to be the good news."

He stared down at her, and the love in his eyes was the most beautiful, heart-wrenching thing she'd ever seen. "Between us, nothing will change. It doesn't matter how you look or feel or act. I'll love you forever, just like I do now."

The emotions she'd worked so hard to submerge floated up again, threatened to consume her. "Let's go," she said quietly. "While I've still got the nerve."

Hand in hand, they walked out of their bedroom and went downstairs, where the kids were supposed to be waiting for them.

The living room was empty.

Kate could hear the television in the family room. It blared out the bleep-thump of video games. She let go of her husband and went to the corner, by the hall. "Boys, come on out here."

"Aw, Mom," Lucas whined, "we're watching a movie."

She wanted to say, Keep on watching; forget it, so badly it actually hurt to say, "Come on, please. Now."

Behind her, she heard her husband go into the kitchen and pick up the phone.

"Downstairs, Marah. Right now. No, I don't care who you're talking to."

Click.

Kate heard him hang up. Instead of going to him, she went to the couch and sat down, perching stiffly on the cushion's edge. She wished suddenly that she'd put on a heavier sweater; she was freezing.

The boys rushed into the room together, fighting with plastic swords, laughing.

"Take that, Captain Hook," Lucas said.

"I'm Peter Pan," William complained, pretending to stab his brother. "En garde!"

At seven, they were just beginning to change. The little-boy freckles were fading; baby teeth were falling out. Every time she looked at them lately, some baby trait had been lost.

Three years from now they'd be almost unrecognizable.

The thought scared her so much that she clutched the sofa's arm and closed her eyes. What if she weren't here to see them grow up? What if—

No bad thoughts.

It had become her mantra in the past four days. Johnny came up beside her, sat down close, and took her hand in his.

"I can't believe you picked up the phone," Marah said, coming down the stairs. "That is so totally an invasion of my privacy. And it was Brian."

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Kate counted silently to ten, calmed herself enough to breathe, and opened her eyes.

Her children were in front of her, standing there, looking either bored (the boys) or irritated (Marah).

She swallowed hard. She could do this.

"Are you gonna say something?" Marah demanded. "Because if you're just gonna stare at us, I'm going back upstairs."

Johnny started to come out of his seat. "Damn it, Marah."

Kate put a hand on his thigh to stop him. "Sit down, Marah," she said, surprised to hear how ordinary she sounded. "You, too, boys."

The boys plopped onto the carpet like marionettes whose strings had been cut, landing in side-by-side heaps.

"I'll stand," Marah said, flinging her hip out and crossing her arms. She gave Kate the old you're-not-the-boss-of-me glare, and Kate couldn't help feeling a pinch of nostalgia.

"You remember when I went into the city on Friday?" Kate began, feeling the acceleration of her heartbeat and the slight breathlessness that accompanied it. "Well, I had a doctor's appointment."

Lucas whispered something to William, who grinned and punched his brother.

Marah looked longingly up the stairs.

Kate squeezed her husband's hand. "Anyway, there's nothing for you to worry about, but I'm . . . sick."

All three of them looked at her.

"Don't worry. They're going to operate on me and then give me a bunch of medicine and I'll be fine. I might be tired for a few weeks, but that should be about it."

"You promise you'll be okay?" Lucas said, his gaze steady and earnest and only a little afraid.

Kate wanted to say, Certainly of course, but such a promise would be remembered.

William rolled his eyes and elbowed his brother. "She just said she'd be fine. Will we get out of school to go to the hospital?"

"Yes," Kate said, actually finding a smile.

Lucas rushed forward to hug her first. "I love you, Mommy," he whispered. She held on to him so long he had to wrench free. The same thing happened with William. Then, as one, they turned and went to the stairs.

"Aren't you going to finish your movie?" Kate asked.

"Naw," Lucas said. "We're going upstairs."

Kate glanced worriedly at her husband, who was already rising. "How about a game of basketball, boys?"

They jumped on the idea and all went outside.

Finally, Kate looked at Marah.

"It's cancer, isn't it?" her daughter asked after a long silence.

"Yes."

"Ms. Murphy had cancer last year and she's fine. And Aunt Georgia, too."

"Exactly."

Marah's mouth trembled. For all her height and pseudo-sophistication and makeup, she looked suddenly like a little girl again asking Kate to leave the night-light on. Wringing her hands together, she moved toward the sofa. "You'll be fine, right?"

Stage four. Already spread. Caught it late. She put a lid on those thoughts. They could do her no good. Now was a time for optimism.

"Right. The doctors say I'm young and healthy, so I should be fine."

Marah lay down on the couch, snuggled close, and put her head in Kate's lap. "I'll take care of you, Mommy."

Kate closed her eyes and stroked her daughter's hair. It seemed like only yesterday she'd been able to hold her in her arms and rock her to sleep, only yesterday that Marah had curled into her lap and cried for their lost goldfish.

Please God, she prayed, let me get old enough that someday we're friends . . .

She swallowed hard. "I know you will, honey."

The Firefly Lane girls . . .

In Kate's dream, it is 1974, and she is a teenager again, riding her bike at midnight with her best friend beside her in a darkness so complete it is like being invisible. She remembers the place in vivid detail: a meandering ribbon of asphalt bordered on either side by deep gullies of murky water and hillsides of shaggy grass. Before they met, that road seemed to go nowhere at all; it was just a country lane named after an insect no one had ever seen in this rugged blue and green corner of the world. Then they saw it through each other's eyes . . .

Let go, Katie. God hates a coward.

She woke with a start, feeling tears on her cheeks. She lay there in her bed, wide awake now, listening to a winter storm rage outside. In the last week she'd lost the ability to distance herself from her memories. Too often lately she returned to Firefly Lane in her dreams, and no wonder.

Best friends forever.

That was the promise they'd made all those years ago, and they'd believed it would last, believed that someday they'd be old women together, sitting in their rocking chairs on a creaking deck, talking about the times of their lives, and laughing.

Now she knew better, of course. For more than a year she'd been telling herself that it was okay, that she could go on without her best friend. Sometimes she even believed it.

Then she'd hear the music. Their music. Yesterday, while she'd been shopping, a bad Muzak version of "You've Got a Friend" had made her cry, right there next to the radishes.

She eased the covers back and got out of bed, careful not to waken the man sleeping beside her. For a moment she stood there, staring down at him in the shadowy darkness. Even in sleep, he wore a troubled expression.

She took the phone off its hook and left the bedroom, then walked down the quiet hallway to the deck. There, she stared out at the storm and gathered her courage. As she punched in the familiar numbers, she wondered what she would say after all these silent months, how she would start. I've had a bad week . . . my life is falling apart . . . or simply: I need you.

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