Firefly Lane Page 73


"Are you cold?"

To the bone. She nodded and tried gingerly to sit up as he crossed the room and flicked the switch for the gas fireplace. With a whoosh, blue and orange flames shot up from the fake log, tinting the dark room with a soft golden light.

When he came back and settled in beside her, she reached up slowly, traced the outline of his lips with the tip of her finger. "You first ravished me on the floor in front of a fire, remember?"

He smiled; like a blind woman, she felt his lips curve with the sensitive pad of her finger. "If I remember correctly, you were doing the ravishing."

"And what if I wanted to ravish you now?"

He looked so scared that she wanted to laugh, but it wasn't funny. "Can we?"

He took her in his arms. She knew they were both thinking that she'd lost so much weight there was almost nothing left of her.

Nothing left of her.

She closed her eyes and tightened her hold around his neck.

The bed seemed so big suddenly, like a sea of soft white cotton compared to the bed downstairs that had become hers.

Slowly, Kate took off her robe and peeled out of her nightgown, trying not to notice how white and sticklike her legs were. Even worse was the battlefield that had been her breasts. She looked ruined, like a little boy, only there were the scars.

Johnny stripped out of his clothes, kicked them aside, and climbed back into bed beside her, drawing the covers up to their hips.

Her heart was thumping hard as she looked at him.

"You're so beautiful," he said, and leaned forward to kiss her scars.

Relief and love cracked her open inside. She kissed him, her breath coming hard and ragged already. In their twenty years of marriage they'd made love thousands of times, and it was always great, but this was different; they had to be so gentle. She knew he was terrified of breaking her bones. She hardly remembered later how it had all happened, how she'd come to be on top of him; all she knew was that she needed every part of him, and everything that she was, that she'd ever been, was irrevocably tied up with this man. When he finally entered her, slow and easy, filling her, she came down to meet him, and in that glorious second, she was whole again. She bent down and kissed him, tasting his tears.

He cried out her name so loudly she silenced him with her palm; if she'd had any breath left she would have laughed at his outburst and whispered, The kids!

But her own orgasm, seconds later, made her forget everything except the pleasure of this sensation.

Finally, smiling, feeling young again, she snuggled up against him. He put an arm around her and pulled her close. They lay there a long time, half sitting against the mound of pillows, watching the firelight, saying nothing.

Then, quietly, Kate said what had been on her mind for a long time. "I can't stand to think of you alone."

"I won't ever be alone. We've got three kids."

"You know what I mean. I'd understand if you and Tully—"

"Don't." He looked at her finally, and in the eyes she knew as well as her own she saw a pain so deep she wanted to weep.

"It was always you. Just you, Katie. Tully was a one-night stand, a long time ago. I didn't love her then and I never have. Not for a second. You're my heart and soul. My world. How can you not know that?"

She saw the truth in his face, heard it in the tremble in his voice, and she was ashamed of herself. She should have known this all along. "I do know that. I'm just so worried about you and the kids. I hate to think . . ."

This conversation was like swimming through acid; it burned through flesh and bone. "I know, baby," he said finally. "I know."

CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

The day of the summer play dawned crisp and clear. A beautiful Northwest autumn afternoon. Kate wanted to help Marah prepare for the big event, but she was too weak to do much. Smiling took effort. The pain behind her eyes was constant now, like the bleating beat of an alarm clock that couldn't be turned off.

And so Kate handed over her duties to Tully, who performed them like a champ.

Kate slept through most of it. By the time night had fallen, she was as rested as she could be and ready to face the challenge of what lay ahead.

"Are you sure you're up to this?" Tully asked at six forty-five.

"I'm ready. Maybe you should put some makeup on me so I don't scare little kids."

"I thought you'd never ask. And I brought you a wig to wear—if you want it."

"I'd love it. I would have thought of it myself if I had any brain cells left." She reached for her oxygen mask and took a few hits.

Tully left the room and returned with her makeup kit.

Kate angled her bed up and closed her eyes. "This feels like the old days."

Tully talked as she worked her magic, penciling on eyebrows, gluing on lashes. Kate let herself be carried away on the tide of her friend's voice. "I have a gift, you know. Do you have a razor?"

Kate meant to laugh. Maybe she even did.

"Okay," Tully finally said. "Time to try on the wig."

Kate blinked, realizing she'd fallen asleep, and grinned. "Sorry about that."

"Don't worry about me. I love it when people fall asleep while I'm talking."

Kate pulled the stocking cap off her head and the mittens off her hands. She was always freezing cold.

Tully put the wig on, positioned it, then helped Kate dress in a black wool dress with tights and boots. In the wheelchair, they wrapped her in blankets, then Tully wheeled her over to the mirror. "Well?"

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She stared at her reflection—pale, thin face with eyes that looked huge beneath the drawn-on eyebrows, brightly blond shoulder-length hair, perfectly red lips. "Great," she said, hoping she sounded honest.

"Good," Tully said. "Let's round the troops up and go."

A half an hour later, they pulled up to the auditorium. They were so early that no other cars were yet in the parking lot.

Perfect.

Johnny put Kate in the wheelchair, covered her in blankets, and led the way to the front doors.

Inside, they took up most of the first row, saving places for the rest of the family; Kate's wheelchair was positioned on the end of the aisle.

"I'll be back in thirty minutes with your folks and the boys," Johnny said to Kate. "Do you need anything else?"

"No."

When he was gone, she and Tully sat in the shadows of the empty auditorium. Kate shivered and tightened the blankets around her. Her head was pounding and she felt sick to her stomach. "Talk to me, Tully. About anything."

Tully didn't miss a beat. She started talking about yesterday's rehearsal, then went on to her troubles with the carpool protocol.

Kate closed her eyes, and suddenly they were kids again, sitting by the Pilchuck River, wondering how their lives would unfold.

We'll be TV journalists. Someday I'll tell Mike Wallace that I couldn't have done it without you.

Dreams. They'd had so many of them, and a surprising number had come true. The funny thing was that she hadn't valued them all highly enough when she'd had the chance.

Leaning back in her seat, she said quietly, "Do you still know the guy who runs the drama program at USC?"

"I do." Tully looked at her. "Why?"

Kate felt Tully's scrutiny on her profile. Without making eye contact, she straightened her wig. "Maybe you could call him. Marah would love to go there." With the words came the thought: I won't be there for her. For any of it. Marah would go off to college without her . . .

"I thought you didn't want her to be in the arts."

"It scares the hell out of me to think of my baby in Hollywood. But you're a TV star. Her dad's a news producer. The poor kid is surrounded by dreamers. What chance did she ever have?" She reached over, squeezed Tully's hand. More than anything, she wanted to look at Tully, but she couldn't do it, didn't dare. "You'll watch out for her and the boys, right?"

"Always."

Kate felt the start of a smile; that one word released a little of her sadness. One thing about Tully: she kept her word. "And maybe you'll look up Cloud again."

"It's funny you'd mention that. I was planning on it. Someday."

"Good," Kate said softly but firmly. "Chad was right, and I was wrong about that. When you get . . . to the end, you see that love and family are all there is. Nothing else matters."

"You're my family, Katie."

"I know. You'll need more after—"

"Please don't say it."

Kate looked at her friend. Bold, brassy, larger-than-life Tully, who'd barreled through the years like a lion in a jungle, always the king. Now she was quiet, afraid. The very idea of Kate's death had unraveled her, made her smaller. "I'm going to die, Tully. Not saying it won't change it."

"I know."

"Here's what I want you to know: I loved my life. For so long I was waiting for it to start, waiting for more. It seemed like all I did was drive and shop and wait. But you know what? I didn't miss a thing with my family. Not a moment. I was there for all of it. That's what I'll remember, and they'll have each other."

"Yes."

"I'm worried about you, though," Kate said.

"You would be."

"You're afraid of love, but you've got so much of it to give."

"I know I've spent a lot of years whining about being alone, and I've had a history of hooking up with inappropriate or unavailable men, but the truth is my career has been my love, and mostly it's been enough. I've been happy. It's important to me that you know that."

Kate gave her a tired smile. "I'm proud of you, you know. Have I told you that often enough?"

"And I'm proud of you." Tully looked at her best friend, and in that one look, thirty plus years crowded in between them, reminded them both of the girls they'd been and the dreams they'd shared, and of the women they'd become. "We've done all right, haven't we?"

Before Kate could answer, the auditorium doors banged open and people streamed in.

Johnny, Mom, Dad, and the boys took their seats just as the house lights flickered.

Then the stage lights came on, the heavy red velvet curtains parted slowly, dragging across the wooden stage at their hem, and revealing the poorly painted set of a small town.

Marah walked onstage, dressed in a high school drama version of a nineteenth century gown.

When Marah began to speak, it was magic.

There was no other word for it.

Kate felt Tully's hand close over hers, squeeze gently. When Marah walked offstage, to a standing ovation, Kate's heart swelled with pride. She leaned against Tully and whispered, "Now I know why I gave her your middle name."

Tully turned to her. "Why?"

Kate tried to smile, but couldn't. It took almost a full minute before she could find enough voice to say, "Because she's the best of both of us."

The end came on a bleak and rainy October night. With everyone she loved standing around her bed, she said goodbye to them one by one, whispering one last special thing to each of them. Then, as rain hit the window and darkness fell, she closed her eyes for the last time.

Kate's last To Do list concerned her funeral and Tully followed it to the letter. The Catholic church on the island was filled with photographs and flowers and friends. Not surprisingly, Kate had chosen Tully's favorite flowers rather than her own.

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