"I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that word from you. It'll be easy because I'll never hear it again. Right?"
Kate couldn't help wishing she was like Tully. She'd never back down so easily. She'd probably light up a cigarette right now and dare her mom to say something.
Mom dug through the baggy pocket of her skirt and found her cigarettes. Lighting up, she studied Kate. "You know I love you and I support you and I would never let anyone hurt you. But Katie, I have to ask you: What is it you're waiting for?"
"What do you mean?"
"You spend all your time reading and doing homework. How are people supposed to get to know you when you act like that?"
"They don't want to know me."
Mom touched her hand gently. "It's never good to sit around and wait for someone or something to change your life. That's why women like Gloria Steinem are burning their bras and marching on Washington."
"So that I can make friends?"
"So that you know you can be whatever you want to be. Your generation is so lucky. You can be anything you want. But you have to take a risk sometimes. Reach out. One thing I can tell you for sure is this: we only regret what we don't do in life."
Kate heard an odd sound in her mom's voice, a sadness that tinted the word regret. But what could her mother possibly know about the battlefield of junior high popularity? She hadn't been a teenager in decades. "Yeah, right."
"It's true, Kathleen. Someday you'll see how smart I am." Her mom smiled and patted her hand. "If you're like the rest of us, it'll happen at about the same time you want me to babysit for the first time."
"What are you talking about?"
Mom laughed at some joke Kate didn't even get. "I'm glad we had this talk. Now go. Make friends with your new neighbor."
Yeah. That would happen.
"Wear oven mitts. It's still hot," Mom said.
Perfect. The mitts.
Kate went over to the counter and stared down at the red-brown glop of a casserole. Dully, she fitted a sheet of foil across the top, curled the edges down, and then put on the puffy, quilted blue oven mitts her Aunt Georgia had made. At the back door, she slipped her stockinged feet into the fake Earth shoes on the porch and headed down the spongy driveway.
The house across the street was long and low to the ground, a rambler-style in an L shape that faced away from the road. Moss furred the shingled roof. The ivory sides were in need of paint, and the gutters were overflowing with leaves and sticks. Giant rhododendron bushes hid most of the windows, runaway junipers created a green spiky barrier that ran the length of the house. No one had tended to the landscaping in years.
At the front door Kate paused, drawing in a deep breath.
Balancing the casserole in one hand, she pulled off one oven mitt and knocked.
Please let no one be home.
Almost instantly she heard footsteps from inside.
The door swung open to reveal a tall woman dressed in a billowy caftan. An Indian-beaded headband circled her forehead. Two mismatched earrings hung from her ears. There was a strange dullness in her eyes, as if she needed glasses and didn't have them, but even so, she was pretty in a sharp, brittle kind of way. "Yeah?"
Weird, pulsing music seemed to come from several places at once; though the lights were turned off, several lava lamps burped and bubbled in eerie green and red canisters.
"H-hello," Kate stammered. "My mom made you guys this casserole."
"Right on," the lady said, stumbling back, almost falling.
And suddenly Tully was coming through the doorway, sweeping through, actually, moving with a grace and confidence that was more movie star than teenager. In a bright blue minidress and white go-go boots, she looked old enough to be driving a car. Without saying anything, she grabbed Kate's arm, pulled her through the living room, and into a kitchen in which everything was pink: walls, cabinets, curtains, tile counters, table. When Tully looked at her, Kate thought she saw a flash of something that looked like embarrassment in those dark eyes.
"Was that your mom?" Kate asked, uncertain of what to say.
"She has cancer."
"Oh." Kate didn't know what to say except, "I'm sorry." Quiet pressed into the room. Instead of making eye contact with Tully, Kate studied the table. Never in her life had she seen so much junk food in one place. Pop-Tarts, Cap'n Crunch and Quisp boxes, Fritos, Funyuns, Twinkies, Zingers, and Screaming Yellow Zonkers. "Wow. I wish my mom would let me eat all this stuff." Kate immediately wished she'd kept her mouth shut. Now she sounded hopelessly uncool. To give herself something to do—and somewhere to look besides Tully's unreadable face—she put the casserole on the counter. "It's still hot," she said, stupidly, considering that she was wearing oven mitts that looked like killer whales.
Tully lit up a cigarette and leaned against the pink wall, eyeing her.
Kate glanced back at the door to the living room. "She doesn't care if you smoke?"
"She's too sick to care."
"You want a drag?"
"Uh . . . no. Thanks."
"Yeah. That's what I thought."
On the wall, the black Kit-Kat Klock swished its tail.
"Well, you probably have to get home for dinner," Tully said.
"Oh," Kate said again, sounding even more nerdy than she had before. "Right."
Tully led the way back through the living room, where her mother was now sprawled on the sofa. "'Bye, girl from across the street with the cool neighbor attitude."
Tully yanked the door open. Beyond it, the falling night was a blurry purple rectangle that seemed too vivid to be real. "Thanks for the food," she said. "I don't know how to cook, and Cloud is cooked, if you know what I mean."
"That's my mom's current name."
"It'd be cool if I did know how to cook. Or if we had a chef or something. With my mom having cancer and all." Tully looked at her.
Tell her you'll teach her.
Take a risk.
But she couldn't do it. The potential for humiliation was sky-high. "Well . . .'bye."
Kate stepped past her and into the night.
She was halfway to the road when Tully called out to her, "Hey, wait up."
Kate slowly turned around.
"What's your name?"
She felt a flash of hope. "Kate. Kate Mularkey."
Tully laughed. "Mularkey? Like bullshit?"
It was hardly funny anymore, that joke about her last name. She sighed and turned back around.
"I didn't mean to laugh," Tully said, but she didn't stop.
"Fine. Be a bitch, why don't you?"
Kate kept walking.
Tully watched the girl walk away.
"I shouldn't have said that," she said, noticing how small her voice sounded beneath the enormous star-spangled sky.
She wasn't even sure why she'd said it, why she'd suddenly felt the need to make fun of the next-door neighbor. With a sigh, she went back into the house. The moment she stepped into the room, the smell of pot overwhelmed her, stung her eyes. On the sofa, her mom lay spread-eagled, one leg on the coffee table, one on the back cushions. Her mouth hung open; drool sparkled the corners of her lips.
And the girl next door had seen this. Tully felt a hot wave of shame. No doubt rumors would be all over school by Monday. Tully Hart has a pothead mom.
This was why she never invited anyone over to her house. When you were keeping secrets, you needed to do it alone, in the dark.
She would have given anything to have the kind of mom who made dinner for strangers. Maybe that was why she'd made fun of the girl's name. The thought pissed her off and she slammed the door shut behind her. "Cloud. Wake up."
Mom drew in a sharp, snorting breath and sat up. "Whass the matter?"
Mom pushed the gob of hair out of her eyes and worked to focus on the wall clock. "What are we—in a nursing home? Iss five o'clock."
Tully was surprised her mom could still tell time. She went into the kitchen, served the casserole onto two white CorningWare plates, and returned to the living room. "Here." She handed her mother a plate and fork.
"Where'd we get this? Did you cook?"
"Hardly. The neighbor brought it over."
Cloud looked blearily around. "We have neighbors?"
Tully didn't bother answering. Her mother always forgot what they were talking about anyway. It made any real conversation impossible, and usually Tully didn't care—she wanted to talk to Cloud like she wanted to watch black and white movies—but now, since that girl's visit, Tully felt her differentness keenly. If she had a real family—a mom who made casseroles and sent them as gifts to new neighbors—she wouldn't feel so alone. She sat down in one of the mustard-colored beanbag chairs that flanked the sofa and said cautiously, "I wonder what Gran's doing right now."
"Pro'ly making one of those god-awful PRAISE JESUS samplers. As if that'll save her soul. Ha. How's school?"
Tully's head snapped up. She couldn't believe her mom had just asked about her life. "Lots of kids hang around with me, but . . ." She frowned. How could she put her dissatisfaction into words? All she really knew was that she was lonely here, even among her new friends. "I keep waiting for . . ."
"Do we have ketchup?" her mother said, frowning down at her heap of Hamburger Helper, poking at it with her fork. She was swaying to the music.
Tully hated the disappointment she felt. She knew better than to expect anything from her mother. "I'm going to my room," she said, climbing out of the beanbag chair.
The last thing she heard before she slammed her bedroom door was her mother saying, "Maybe it needs cheese."
Late that night, long after everyone else had gone to bed, Kate crept down the stairs, put on her dad's huge rubber boots, and went outside. It was becoming a habit lately, going outside when she couldn't sleep. Overhead, the huge black sky was splattered with stars. It made her feel small and unimportant, that sky. A lonely girl looking down at an empty street that went nowhere.
Sweetpea nickered and trotted toward her.
She climbed up onto the top rail of the fence. "Hey there, girl," she said, pulling a carrot out of her parka's pocket.
She glanced over at the house across the street. The lights were still on at midnight. No doubt Tully was having a party with all the popular kids. They were probably laughing and dancing and talking about how cool they were.
Kate would give everything she owned to be invited to just one party like that.
Sweetpea nudged her knee, snorted.
"I know. I'm dreaming." Sighing, she slid off the fence, petted Sweetpea one last time, and then went back to bed.
A few nights later, after a dinner of Pop-Tarts and Alpha-Bits cereal, Tully took a long, hot shower, shaved her legs and underarms carefully, and dried her hair until it fell straight from her center part without a single crease or curl. Then she went to her closet and stood there, trying to figure out what to wear. This was her first high school party. She needed to look just right. None of the other girls from the junior high had been invited. She was The One. Pat Richmond, the best-looking guy on the football team, had chosen Tully for his date. They'd been at the local hamburger hangout last Wednesday night, his group of friends and hers. All it had taken was one look between them. Pat had broken free of the crowd of huge guys and walked right over to Tully.