Downstairs, she went to the back door, folded her belled pant leg around each calf, and stepped into the huge black rubber boots they kept on the concrete steps. Moving like Neil Armstrong, she made her way through the deep mud to the shed out back. Their old quarterhorse mare limped up to the fence, whinnied a greeting. "Heya, Sweetpea," Kate said, throwing a flake of hay onto the ground, and then scratching the horse's velvety ear.
"I miss you, too," she said, and it was true. Two years ago they'd been inseparable; Kate had ridden this mare all that summer, and won plenty of ribbons at the Snohomish County Fair.
But things changed fast. She knew that now. A horse could get old overnight and go lame. A friend could become a stranger just as quickly.
"'Bye." She clomped back up the dark, muddy driveway and left her dirty boots on the porch.
When she opened the back door, she stepped into pandemonium. Mom stood at the stove, dressed in her faded floral housedress and fuzzy pink slippers, smoking an Eve menthol cigarette and pouring batter into an oblong electric frying pan. Her shoulder-length brown hair was divided into two scrawny pigtails; each one was held in place by a strand of hot-pink ribbon. "Set the table, Katie," she said without glancing up. "Sean! Get down here."
Kate did as she was told. Almost before she was finished, her mother was behind her, pouring milk into the glasses.
"Sean—breakfast," Mom yelled up the stairs again. This time she added the magic words: "I've poured the milk."
Within seconds eight-year-old Sean came running down the stairs and rushed toward the beige speckled Formica table, giggling as he tripped over the Labrador puppy who'd recently joined the family.
Kate was just about to sit down at her regular place when she happened to glance across the kitchen and into the living room. Through the large window above the sofa, she saw something that surprised her: A moving van was turning into the driveway across the street.
"Wow." She carried her plate through the two rooms and stood at the window, staring out over their three acres and down on the house across the street. It had been vacant for as long as anyone could remember.
She heard her mother's footsteps coming up behind her; hard on the fake brick linoleum of the kitchen floor, quiet in the moss-green carpeting of the living room.
"Someone's moving in across the street," Kate said.
No. I'm lying.
"Maybe they'll have a girl your age. It would be nice for you to have a friend."
Kate bit back an irritated retort. Only mothers thought it was easy to make friends in junior high. "Whatever." She turned away abruptly, taking her plate into the hallway, where she finished her breakfast in peace beneath the portrait of Jesus.
As expected, Mom followed her. She stood by the tapestry wall hanging of The Last Supper, saying nothing.
"What?" Kate snapped when she couldn't take it anymore.
Mom's sigh was so quiet it could hardly be heard. "Why are we always bickering lately?"
"You're the one who starts it."
"By saying hello and asking how you're doing? Yeah, I'm a real witch."
"You said it, not me."
"It's not my fault, you know."
"That you don't have any friends. If you'd—"
Kate walked away. Honest to St. Jude, one more if-you'd-only-try-harder speech and she might puke.
Thankfully—for once—Mom didn't follow her. Instead, she went back into the kitchen, calling out, "Hurry up, Sean. The Mularkey school bus leaves in ten minutes."
Her brother giggled. Kate rolled her eyes and went upstairs. It was so lame. How could her brother laugh at the same stupid joke every day?
The answer came as quickly as the question had: because he had friends. Life with friends made everything easier.
She hid in her bedroom until she heard the old Ford station wagon start up. The last thing she wanted was to get driven to school by her mom, who yelled goodbye and waved like a contestant on The Price Is Right when Kate got out of the car. Everyone knew it was social suicide to be driven to school by your parents. When she heard tires crunching slowly across gravel, she went back downstairs, washed the dishes, gathered her stuff, and left the house. Outside, the sun was shining, but last night's rain had studded the driveway with inner-tube-sized potholes. No doubt the old-timers down at the hardware store were already starting to talk about the flooding. Mud sucked at the soles of her fake Earth shoes, making her progress slow. So intent was she on saving her only rainbow socks that she was at the bottom of the driveway before she noticed the girl standing across the street.
She was gorgeous. Tall and big-boobed, she had long, curly auburn hair and a face like Caroline of Monaco: pale skin and full lips and long lashes. And her clothes: low-rise, three-button jeans with huge, tie-died wedges of fabric in the seams to make elephant bells; cork-bottomed platform shoes with four-inch heels; and an angel-sleeved pink peasant blouse that revealed at least two inches of stomach.
Kate clutched her books against her chest, wishing she hadn't picked her pimples last night. Or that her jeans weren't Sears Rough Riders. "H-hi," she said, stopping on her side of the road. "The bus stops on this side."
Chocolate-brown eyes, rimmed heavily with black mascara and shiny blue eye shadow, stared at her, revealing nothing.
Just then, the school bus arrived. Wheezing and squeaking, it came to a shuddering stop on the road. A boy she used to have a crush on stuck his head out the window and yelled, "Hey, Kootie, the flood's over," and then laughed.
Kate put her head down and boarded the bus. Collapsing into her usual front-row seat—by herself—she kept her head bowed, waiting for the new girl to walk past her, but no one else got on. When the doors thumped shut and the bus lurched forward, she dared to look back at the road.
The coolest-looking girl in the world wasn't there.
Already Tully didn't fit in. It had taken two hours to choose her clothes this morning—an outfit right out of the pages of Seventeen magazine—and every bit of it was wrong.
When the school bus drove up, she made a split-second decision. She wasn't going to go to school in this hick backwater. Snohomish might be less than an hour from downtown Seattle, but as far as she was concerned, she might as well be on the moon. That was how alien this place felt.
She marched down the gravel driveway and shoved the front door open so hard it cracked against the wall.
Drama, she'd learned, was like good punctuation: it underscored your point.
"You must be high," she said loudly, realizing a second too late that the only people in the living room were the moving men.
One of them paused and looked wearily her way. "Huh?"
She pushed past them, grazing the armoire so hard they swore under their breath. Not that she cared. She hated it when she felt like this, all puffed up with anger.
She wouldn't let her so-called mother make her feel twisted up inside, not after all the times that woman had abandoned her.
In the master bedroom, her mom was sitting on the floor, cutting pictures out of Cosmo. As usual, her long hair was a wavy, fuzzy nightmare held in check by a grossly out-of-date beaded leather headband. Without looking up, she flipped to the next page, where a naked, grinning Burt Reynolds covered his penis with one hand.
"I'm not going to this backwater school. They're a bunch of hicks."
"Oh." Mom flipped to the next page, then reached for her scissors and began cutting out a spray of flowers from a Breck ad. "Okay."
Tully wanted to scream. "Okay? Okay? I'm fourteen years old."
"My job is to love and support you, baby, not to get in your face."
Tully closed her eyes, counted to ten, and said again, "I don't have any friends here."
"Make new ones. I heard you were Miss Popular at your old school."
"Come on, Mom, I—"
"I'm not calling you Cloud."
"Fine, Tallulah." Mom looked up to make sure her point had been made. It had.
"I don't belong here."
"You know better than that, Tully. You're a child of the earth and sky; you belong everywhere. The Bhagavad Gita says . . ."
"That's it." Tully walked away while her mother was still talking. The last thing she wanted to hear was some drug-soaked advice that belonged on a black-light poster. On the way out, she snagged a pack of Virginia Slims from her mom's purse and headed for the road.
For the next week, Kate watched the new girl from a distance.
Tully Hart was boldly, coolly different; brighter, somehow, than everyone else in the faded green hallways. She had no curfew and didn't care if she got caught smoking in the woods behind the school. Everyone talked about it. Kate heard the whispered awe in their voices. For a group of kids who'd grown up in the dairy farms and paper mill workers' homes of the Snohomish Valley, Tully Hart was exotic. Everyone wanted to be friends with her.
Her neighbor's instant popularity made Kate's alienation more unbearable. She wasn't sure why it wounded her so much. All she knew was that every morning, as they stood at the bus stop beside each other and yet worlds apart, separated by yawning silence, Kate felt a desperate desire to be acknowledged by Tully.
Not that it would ever happen.
". . . before The Carol Burnett show starts. It's ready now. Kate? Katie?"
Kate lifted her head from the table. She'd fallen asleep on her open social studies textbook at the kitchen table. "Huh? What did you say?" she asked, pushing her heavy glasses back up into place.
"I made Hamburger Helper for our new neighbors. I want you to take it across the street."
"But . . ." Kate tried to think of an excuse, anything that would get her out of this. "They've been here a week."
"So I'm late. Things have been crazy lately."
"I've got too much homework. Send Sean."
"Sean's not likely to make friends over there, now, is he?"
"Neither am I," Kate said miserably.
Mom faced her. The brown hair she'd curled and teased so carefully this morning had fallen during the day and her makeup had faded. Now her round, apple-cheeked face looked pale and washed out. Her purple and yellow crocheted vest—a Christmas present from last year—was buttoned wrong. Staring at Kate, she crossed the room and sat down at the table. "Can I say something without you jumping all over me?"
"I'm sorry about you and Joannie."
Of all the things Kate might have expected, that was not even on the list. "It doesn't matter."
"It matters. I hear she's running with a pretty fast crowd these days."
Kate wanted to say she couldn't have cared less, but to her horror, tears stung her eyes. Memories rushed at her—Joannie and her on the Octopus ride at the fair, sitting outside their stalls at the barn, talking about how much fun high school would be. She shrugged. "Yeah."
"Life is hard sometimes. Especially at fourteen."
Kate rolled her eyes. If there was one thing she knew, it was that her mother knew nothing about how hard life could be for a teenager. "No shit."