Firefly Lane Page 69


"Oh, Katie . . ."

And she was crying again. Quieter this time.

She walked dully up one street and down another until something in one of the display windows caught her eye.

There, in a store on the corner, she found what she hadn't even realized she'd been looking for. She had the gift wrapped and ran all the way back to Kate's room.

She was out of breath when she opened the door and went inside.

Kate smiled tiredly. "Let me guess: you've got a film crew with you."

"Very funny." She eased around the curtain and stood by the bed. "Your mom tells me you're still having trouble with Marah."

"It's not your fault. She's scared of all this and she doesn't know how easy it is to say you're sorry."

"I didn't."

"You always were her role model." Kate closed her eyes. "I'm tired, Tully . . ."

"I have a present for you."

Kate opened her eyes. "What I need can't be bought."

Tully tried not to react to that. Instead, she handed Kate the beautifully wrapped gift and helped her open it.

Inside was a hand-tooled, leather-bound journal. On the first page, Tully had written: Katie's story.

Kate stared down at the blank page for a long time, saying nothing.

"Katie?"

"I was never really a writer," she finally said. "You and Johnny and Mom all wanted it for me, but I never did it. Too late now."

Tully touched her friend's wrist, feeling how fragile and thin it was; the tiniest pressure could leave a bruise. "For Marah," she said quietly. "And the boys. Someday they'll be old enough to read it. They'll want to know who you were."

"How do I know what to write?"

Tully had no real answer for that. "Just write what you remember."

Kate closed her eyes, as if the thought alone were too much to bear. "Thanks, Tully."

"I won't leave you again, Katie."

Kate didn't open her eyes, but she smiled just a little. "I know."

Kate didn't remember falling asleep. One minute she was talking to Tully, and the next—she was waking up in a dark room that smelled of fresh flowers and disinfectant.

She'd been in this room for so long it almost felt like home, and sometimes, when her family's hope was more than she could bear, this small beige room comforted her with its silence. Within these blank walls, when no one else was around, she didn't have to pretend to be strong.

But right now she didn't want to be here. She wanted to be at home, in her own bed, in her husband's arms rather than watching him sleep in the hospital bed on the other side of the room.

Or with Tully, sitting on the muddy banks of the Pilchuck River, talking about David Cassidy's newest album and sharing a bag of Pop Rocks.

The memory made her smile, and with it came a lessening of the fear that had wakened her.

She knew she wouldn't fall back asleep without medication and she didn't want to wake the night nurse. Besides, she had little enough life left to her; what was the point in sleeping?

It had only been in the last few weeks that such morbid thoughts had come to her. Before that, in the months since her diagnosis—what she thought of as D-Day—she did everything she was supposed to do, and she did it with a smile for everyone in the room.

Surgery—Sure, cut me open and take my breasts.

Radiation—Absolutely. Burn me up.

Chemotherapy—Another dose of poison, please.

Tofu and miso soup—Yum. May I have some more?

Crystals. Meditation. Visualization. Chinese herbs.

She'd done it all, and done it with vigor. Even more important, she'd believed in all of it, believed she'd be cured.

The effort had winded her; the belief had broken her.

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She sighed and rubbed her eyes. Leaning sideways, she turned on the bedside lamp. Johnny, who'd grown used to her weird waking/sleeping schedule, rolled onto his side and murmured, "You okay, baby?"

"I'm fine. Keep sleeping."

Mumbling something, he rolled back over. In no time, she heard his quiet snore.

Kate reached over for the journal Tully had bought her. Holding it, she traced the leather etchings and the gold-edged sheets of paper.

It would hurt to do this; of that she had no doubt. To pick up a pen and write down her life, she'd have to remember it all, who she was, who she'd wanted to be. Those memories would be painful, both the good and the bad would wound her.

But her children would see through the illness to her, the woman they would always remember, but never truly have time to know. Tully was right. The only gift Kate could give them now was the truth of who she was.

She flipped the journal open. Because she had no clear idea of where to start, she simply began to write.

Panic always comes to me in the same way. First, I get a knot in the pit of my stomach that turns to nausea, then a fluttery breathlessness that no amount of deep breathing can cure. But what causes my fear is different every day; I never know what will set me off. It could be a kiss from my husband, or the lingering look of sadness in his eyes when he draws back. Sometimes I know he's already grieving for me, missing me even while I'm still here. Worse yet is Marah's quiet acceptance of everything I say. I would give anything for another of our old knock-down drag-out fights. That's one of the first things I'd say to you now, Marah: Those fights were real life. You were struggling to break free of being my daughter but unsure of how to be yourself, while I was afraid to let you go. It's the circle of love. I only wish I'd recognized it then. Your grandmother told me I'd know you were sorry for those years before you did, and she was right. I know you regret some of the things you said to me, as I regret my own words. None of that matters, though. I want you to know that. I love you and I know you love me.

But these are just more words, aren't they? I want to go deeper than that. So, if you'll bear with me (I haven't really written anything in years), I have a story to tell you. It's my story, and yours, too. It starts in 1960 in a small farming town up north, in a clapboard house on a hill above a horse pasture. When it gets good, though, is 1974, when the coolest girl in the world moved into the house across the street . . .

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

From her place in the makeup chair, Tully stared at herself. It was the first time, in all her years spent in seats like this, that she'd really noticed how huge the mirrors were. No wonder it was so easy for a celebrity to get lost in her own reflection.

She said, "I don't need makeup, Charles," and got out of the chair.

He stared at her, gape-mouthed, his own seriously overstyled hair falling across his face. "You're kidding me, right? You're on in fifteen."

"Let them see me as I am."

She walked around the studio, her fiefdom, watching her employees scurry around, running to and fro to make sure everything went off without a hitch, and that was no mean feat, given that she'd called everyone at three yesterday to change the theme of today's live show. She knew that several of her producers and bookers had worked late into the night to put it together. She herself had been up until almost two in the morning, doing research. She'd faxed and e-mailed dozens of the best oncologists in the world. She'd spent hours on the phone, relaying every bit of information on Kate's case that she'd been able to glean. Every specialist said the same thing.

There was nothing Tully could do. No amount of fame or success or money would help her now. For the first time in years, she felt ordinary. Small.

But, for once, she had something important to say.

The theme music started, and she walked onto her stage.

"Welcome to The Girlfriend Hour," she said as she always did, but then something went wrong, just stopped. She looked at her audience and saw strangers. It was an odd and disconcerting moment. For most of her life, she'd sought approval from crowds like this, and their unconditional support had buoyed her.

They noticed something was wrong and fell silent.

She sat down on the edge of the stage. "You're all thinking I'm skinnier in person and older. And that I'm not as pretty as you'd thought."

The audience laughed nervously.

"I'm not wearing makeup."

They burst into applause.

"I'm not fishing for compliments. I'm just . . . tired." She glanced around. "You have been my friends for a long time. You write to me, e-mail me, come to my events when I'm in your city, and I've always appreciated it. In return, I've given you my honest self or as close as I can without some kind of medication. Do you remember a show from a few years ago, when my best friend, Kate Ryan, was ambushed on this very stage? By me?"

There was a nervous rumbling, a shaking and nodding of heads.

"Well, Kate has breast cancer."

A murmur of sympathy.

"It's an extremely rare kind of cancer that starts not with a lump, but with a rash or a discoloration. Kate's family physician diagnosed it as a bug bite and prescribed antibiotics. Unfortunately, this happens to too many women, especially younger women. It's called inflammatory breast cancer and it can be aggressive and all too deadly. By the time Kate was diagnosed, it was already too late."

There wasn't a sound from the audience.

Tully looked up through a blur of tears. "Dr. Hilary Carleton is here to talk about inflammatory breast cancer, and to educate you about the symptoms: the rashes, the localized heat, the discolorations, the puckered skin, and the inverted nipples, to name a few. She'll remind us all that we need to look for more than just lumps. The doctor has brought a woman with her—Merrilee Comber from Des Moines, Iowa—who first noticed a small scaly patch near her left nipple . . ."

The show rolled forward as they all did, on the wheels of Tully's personality. She interviewed guests and showed pictures and reminded her audience of millions not only to get yearly mammograms but to watch for any changes in their breasts. At the end of her broadcast, instead of her usual We'll talk tomorrow tagline, she looked into the camera and said, "Katie, you're the best friend I have and the best mother I know. Except for Mrs. M., who is good, too." Then she smiled at her audience and said simply: "This will be my last show for a long while. I'm taking time off to be with Katie. As all of you would."

She heard a gasp following her announcement; this time the sound came from backstage.

"This show is, after all, just that: a show. Real life is with friends and family, and as an old friend pointed out to me a while ago: I do have a family. And she needs me now." She unclipped her microphone, dropped it to the floor, and left the stage.

On Kate's last night in the hospital, Tully convinced Johnny to take the kids home, and she took his place in the room's other bed. She pushed the bed across the linoleum floor until it practically butted up to Katie's. "I brought you a tape of my last show."

"You would think that's what a dying woman wanted to watch."

"Ha ha." Tully put the tape in the machine and hit play, then crawled into her bed. Like a pair of eighth-grade girls at a slumber party, they watched the taped broadcast.

When it was over, Kate turned to her. "I'm glad to see you'll still use me to bump up your ratings."

"I'll have you know that was poignant and powerful. And important."

"You think that's true of everything you do."

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