Fly Away Page 4


Lucas’s eyes were wide and bright, his lashes spiked with moisture. He knew his mother was Gone, but he didn’t really understand how that could be.

Marah came up beside her brothers. She looked thin and pale, ghostlike in her black dress.

All of them looked at him.

This was his moment to speak, to offer comforting words, to give them advice they would remember. As their father, it was his job to turn the next few hours into a celebration of his wife’s life. But how?

“Come on, boys,” Marah said with a sigh. “I’ll put Finding Nemo on.”

“No,” Lucas wailed. “Not Finding Nemo.”

Wills looked up. He took hold of his brother’s hand. “The mom dies.”

“Oh.” Marah nodded. “How about The Incredibles?”

Lucas nodded glumly.

Johnny was still trying to figure out what in the hell to say to his wounded children when the doorbell rang for the first time.

He flinched at the sound. Afterward, he was vaguely aware of time passing, of people crowding around him and doors opening and closing. Of the sun setting and night pressing against the windowpanes. He kept thinking, Move, go, say hi, but he couldn’t seem to make himself begin this thing.

Someone touched his arm.

“I’m so sorry, Johnny,” he heard a woman say, and he turned.

She stood beside him, dressed in black, holding a foil-covered casserole dish. He could not for the life of him remember who she was. “When Arthur left me for that barista, I thought my life was over. But you keep getting up, and one day you realize you’re okay. You’ll find love again.”

It took all his self-control not to snap out at this woman that death was different from infidelity, but before he could even think of her name, another woman showed up. She, too, thought hunger was his biggest problem now, judging by the size of the foil-covered tray in her plump hands.

He heard “… better place” … and walked away.

He pushed through the crowd and went to the bar that was set up in the kitchen. On the way, he passed several people, all of whom murmured some combination of the same useless words—sorry, suffering over, better place. He neither paused nor answered. He kept moving. He didn’t look at the photographs that had been set up around the room, on easels and propped up against windows and lamps. In the kitchen, he found a clot of sad-eyed women working efficiently, taking foil off casserole dishes and burrowing through the utensil drawers. At his entrance, they stilled, quick as birds with a fox in their midst, and looked up. Their pity—and the fear that this could someday happen to them—was a tangible presence in the room.

At the sink, his mother-in-law, Margie, put down the pitcher she’d been filling with water. It hit the counter with a clank. Smoothing the hair away from her worry-lined face, she moved toward him. Women stepped aside to let her through. She paused at the bar, poured him a scotch and water over ice, and handed it to him.

“I couldn’t find a glass,” he said. Stupidly. The glasses were right beside him. “Where’s Bud?”

“Watching TV with Sean and the boys. This isn’t exactly something he can deal with. Sharing his daughter’s death with all these strangers, I mean.”

Johnny nodded. His father-in-law had always been a quiet man, and the death of his only daughter had broken him. Even Margie, who had remained vital and dark-haired and laughing well past her last birthday, had aged immeasurably since the diagnosis. She had rounded forward, as if expecting another blow from God at any second. She’d stopped dyeing her hair and white flowed along her part like a frozen river. Rimless glasses magnified her watery eyes.

“Go to your kids,” Margie said, pressing her pale, blue-veined hand into the crook of his arm.

“I should stay here and help you.”

“I’m fine,” she said. “But I’m worried about Marah. Sixteen is a tough age to lose a mother, and I think she regrets how much she and Kate fought before Kate got sick. Words stay with you sometimes, especially angry ones.”

He took a long sip of his drink, watched the ice rattle in his glass when he was done. “I don’t know what to say to them.”

“Words aren’t what matter.” Margie tightened her hold on his arm and led him out of the kitchen.

The house was full of people, but even in a crowd of mourners, Tully Hart was noticeable. The center of attention. In a black sheath dress that probably cost as much as some of the cars parked in the driveway, she managed to look beautiful in grief. Her shoulder-length hair was auburn these days, and she must have redone her makeup since the funeral. In the living room, surrounded by people, she gestured dramatically, obviously telling a story, and when she finished, everyone around her laughed.

“How can she smile?”

“Tully knows a thing or two about heartbreak, don’t forget. She’s spent a lifetime hiding her pain. I remember the first time I ever saw her. I walked across Firefly Lane to her house because she’d befriended Kate and I wanted to check her out. Inside that run-down old house across the street, I met her mom, Cloud. Well, I didn’t meet her. Cloud was lying on the sofa spread-eagled, with a mound of marijuana on her stomach. She tried to sit up, and when she couldn’t, she said, F–– me, I’m stoned, and flopped back down. When I looked at Tully, who was maybe fourteen, I saw the kind of shame that marks you forever.”

“You had an alcoholic dad and you overcame it.”

“I fell in love and had babies. A family. Tully thinks no one can love her except Kate. I don’t think the loss has really hit her yet, but when it does, it’s going to be ugly.”

Tully put a CD into the stereo and cranked the music. Born to be w-iiii-ld blared through the speakers.

The people in the living room backed away from her, looking offended.

“Come on,” Tully said, “who wants a straight shot?”

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Johnny knew he should stop her, but he couldn’t get that close. Not now, not yet. Every time he looked at Tully, he thought, Kate’s gone, and the wound cracked open again. Turning away, he went up to comfort his children instead.

It took everything he had to climb the stairs.

Outside the twins’ bedroom, he paused, trying to gather strength.

You can do this.

He could do it. He had to. The children beyond this door had just learned that life was unfair and that death ripped hearts and families apart. It was his job to make them understand, to hold them together and heal them.

He drew in a sharp breath and opened the door.

The first thing he saw were the beds—unmade, rumpled, the Star Wars bedding in a tangled heap. The navy-blue walls—hand-painted by Kate to show clouds and stars and moons—had been covered over the years with the boys’ artwork and some of their favorite movie posters. Golden T-ball and soccer trophies stood proudly on the dresser top.

His father-in-law, Bud, sat in the big papasan chair that easily held both boys when they played video games, and Sean, Kate’s younger brother, lay asleep on Wills’s bed.

Marah sat on the rug in front of the TV, with Lucas beside her. Wills was in the corner, watching the movie with his arms crossed, looking angry and isolated.

“Hey,” Johnny said quietly, closing the door behind him.

“Dad!” Lucas lurched to his feet. Johnny scooped his son into his arms and held him tightly.

Bud climbed awkwardly out of the cushy papasan chair and got to his feet. He looked rumpled in his out-of-date black suit with a white shirt and wide polyester tie. His pale face, marked by age spots, seemed to have added creases and folds in the past weeks. Beneath bushy gray eyebrows, his eyes looked sad. “I’ll give you some time.” He went to the bed, thumped Sean on the shoulder, and said, “Wake up.”

Sean came awake with a start and sat up sharply. He looked confused until he saw Johnny. “Oh, right.” He followed his dad out of the room.

Johnny heard the door click shut behind him. On-screen, brightly colored superheroes ran through the jungle. Lucas slid out of Johnny’s arms and stood beside him.

Johnny looked at his grieving children, and they looked at him. Their reactions to their mother’s death were as different as they were, as unique. Lucas, the tenderhearted, was undone by missing his mom and confused about where exactly she’d gone. His twin, Wills, was a kid who relied on athleticism and popularity. Already he was a jock and well liked. This loss had offended and scared him. He didn’t like being afraid, so he got angry instead.

And then there was Marah; beautiful sixteen-year-old Marah, for whom everything had always come easily. In the cancer year, she had closed up, become contained and quiet, as if she thought that if she made no noise at all, caused no disruption, the inevitability of this day could be avoided. He knew how deeply she regretted the way she’d treated Kate before she got sick.

The need in all of their eyes was the same, though. They looked to him to put their destroyed world back together, to ease this unimaginable pain.

But Kate was the heart and soul of this family, the glue that held them all together. Hers was the voice that knew what to say. Anything he said would be a lie. How would they heal? How would things get better? How would more time without Kate soothe them?

Marah rose suddenly, unfolding with the kind of grace that most girls would never know. She looked sylphlike in her grief, pale and almost ethereal, with her long black hair, black dress, and nearly translucent skin. He heard the hitch in her breathing, the way she seemed hard-pressed to inhale this new air.

“I’ll put the boys to bed,” she said, reaching out for Lucas. “Come on, rug rat. I’ll read you a story.”

“Way to make us feel better, Dad,” Wills said, his mouth tightening. It was a dark, sadly adult expression on an eight-year-old face.

“It will get better,” Johnny said, hating his weakness.

“Will it?” Wills said. “How?”

Lucas looked up at him. “Yeah, how, Dad?”

He looked at Marah, who looked so cold and pale she might have been carved of ice.

“Sleep will help,” she said dully, and Johnny was pathetically grateful to her. He knew he was losing it, failing, that he was supposed to provide support, not accept it, but he was empty inside.

Just empty.

Tomorrow he’d be better. Do better.

But when he saw the sad disappointment on his children’s faces, he knew what a lie that was.

I’m sorry, Katie.

“Good night,” he said in a thick voice.

Lucas looked up at him. “I love you, Daddy.”

Johnny dropped slowly to his knees and opened his arms. His sons pushed into his embrace and he held them tightly. “I love you, too.” Over their heads, he stared up at Marah, who appeared unmoved. She stood straight and tall, her shoulders back.

“Marah?”

“Don’t bother,” she said softly.

“Your mom made us promise to be strong. Together.”

“Yeah,” she said, her lower lip trembling just a little. “I know.”

“We can do it,” he said, although he heard the unsteadiness of his voice.

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