"You want me to open it now?"
She peeled back the paper, plucked off the bow, and found a blue velvet box inside. Opening it, she gasped. There lay a fine gold necklace and a diamond-encrusted heart-shaped locket. "Johnny . . ."
"I've done some stupid things in my life, Katie, and for most of them I've paid the price. Lately, you've paid the price, too. I know how hard it's been on you, this past year. And I want you to know this: you are the one thing I've done right in this life." He took the necklace out of the box and put it on her. "I've taken a new job at my old station. You won't have to worry about me anymore. You're my heart, Katie Scarlett, and I'll always be here for you. I love you."
Kate's throat tightened with emotion. "I love you, too."
During college, the cherry trees in the Quad had marked the passing of time. Every season came and went on those spindly gray-brown branches. In the eighties, time had been marked by the streetlamps on the cobblestoned street in front of the Public Market. When the first SEASON'S GREETINGS flag fluttered beneath the lamps, she knew another year had gone by.
In the nineties it was Tully's hair. Every morning, while Kate fed and bathed Marah, she watched the morning show on TV. Like clockwork, Tully's hairdos changed twice a year. First there had been the Jane Pauley extra-short bangs, then the Meg Ryan messy look, then the pixie cut that made her look impossibly young, and most recently, she'd chosen the most talked-about cut in the country—the Rachel.
Every time Kate saw a new hairdo, she winced at how fast time was moving. The years weren't just passing, they were flying by. Already it was the last day of August, 1997. In a little more than a week her baby would be starting second grade.
She hated to admit how much she'd been looking forward to this day.
For the past seven years, she'd been the best mother she knew how to be. She'd diligently recorded every milestone in Marah's baby album and took enough photographs to scientifically document a new life-form. More than that, she enjoyed her daughter so much that she sometimes felt lost in the sea of love that surrounded them. She and Johnny had tried for years to conceive another child, but they had not been so blessed. It had been difficult for Kate to handle; in time, though, she'd accepted her small family and poured herself into making every moment perfect. Finally, she'd found something she was passionate about: motherhood.
But as the months turned into years, she'd begun to feel a tiny itch of dissatisfaction. At first she'd kept it bottled inside of her—after all, what did she have to complain about? She loved her life. She spent what spare hours she did have volunteering in the classroom and at Helper House, the local center that provided assistance to women in need. She even took a few art classes.
It wasn't enough, didn't fill the invisible void, but it made her feel productive and useful. And though the people who loved her—Johnny, Tully, and Mom—repeatedly commented that she seemed to be looking for something more, she ignored them all. It was so much easier to focus on the present, on her daughter. There would be plenty of time later on to search for herself.
Now she stood at the living room window, dressed in her flannel pajamas, staring out at the still-dark backyard. Even in the shadows she could see toys strewn about the deck and yard. Barbies. Beanie Babies. A tricycle lying on its side. A pink plastic Corvette was washing back and forth on the incoming tide.
Shaking her head, she turned away from the view and went to the television, turning it on. As soon as Marah woke up, she was going to make her daughter march outside and pick up the toys. A temper tantrum was sure to follow.
The television came on with a thump. A BREAKING NEWS banner ran beneath Bernard Shaw's grave face. Behind him, a montage of Princess Diana photographs reeled off, one after another. "For those of you just tuning in," Bernard said, "the news from France is that Princess Diana is dead . . ."
Kate stared at the screen, not quite comprehending.
The princess. Their princess. Dead?
Beside her, the phone rang. Without looking away from the TV, she answered it. "Hello?"
"You're watching the news?"
"I'm in London to cover it."
"Oh, my God." Kate stared at the images on the TV—young, shy Diana in her plaid skirt and bomber-type jacket, with her eyes downcast; pregnant Diana, looking hopeful and radiantly happy; elegant Diana, in a gorgeous off-the-shoulder gown, dancing with John Travolta at the White House; laughing Diana, on a ride at Disneyland with her boys; and finally, Diana alone, in a hospital far from home, holding a malnourished black baby.
In those few images were the whole of a woman's life.
"It can be over so fast," Kate said, more to herself than to Tully. She realized a moment too late that Tully had been talking and she'd interrupted her.
"She was just starting to come into her own, too."
Maybe she'd waited too long to try. Kate knew about that, about how frightening it could be to watch your children grow up and your husband go off to work and to wonder what you'd do with the sliver of life that was yours.
Familiar photographs filled the screen: Diana, walking alone at some event, waving to the crowd, then the image changed to the front gates of one of the castles, where flowers were beginning to pile up in remembrance. Life could change so quickly. She'd forgotten that somehow.
"Kate? Are you okay?"
"I think I'll sign up for a writing class at UW," she said slowly. The words felt pulled out of her somehow.
"Really? That's great. You always were a kick-ass writer."
Kate didn't respond. She sank down to the sofa and just stared at the TV, surprised when she began to cry.
Almost immediately, Kate regretted the decision she'd made. Well, that wasn't entirely true. What she actually regretted was that she'd told Tully, who'd told Mom, who'd told Johnny.
"You know, it's a great idea," Johnny said a few nights later as they lay in bed, watching television. "I'll help out with whatever you need me to do."
Kate wanted to give him a laundry list of reasons that it was too burdensome for her schedule. He and Tully made everything sound so easy, as if life were a combo plate you could order and pay for. She knew how wrong they were, how it felt to find that you weren't good enough.
In the end, though, she could lie to herself and make excuses for only so long. When Marah went off to school, waving wildly, Kate was left with the empty hours of her day. Chores and obligations could only fill some of her time.
So, on a hot Indian summer day in mid-September, she dropped Marah off at school, drove onto the midmorning ferry, and merged into the downtown Seattle traffic. At ten-thirty she parked in the visitors' lot at the University of Washington, walked to the Registration Building, and signed up for a single class: Introduction to Fiction Writing.
For the next week, she was a nervous wreck.
"I can't do it," she whined to her husband, feeling sick to her stomach on the day of the first class.
"You can do it. I'll take Marah to school so you won't be stressed about catching the ferry."
"But I am stressed."
He bent down and kissed her, then drew back, smiling. "Get your ass out of bed."
After that, she moved on autopilot—taking a shower, dressing, packing her backpack.
All the way to UW she thought: What am I doing? I'm thirty-seven years old. I can't go back to college.
And then she was in the classroom, the only person in the room who was over thirty—including the teacher.
She wasn't sure when she relaxed, but gradually, her stomachache eased. The more the professor talked about writing, about the gift of storytelling, the more Kate felt she belonged here.
From her place at the news desk, Tully finished her on-air banter with the show's cohosts, then turned her attention to the TelePrompTer, reading the news seamlessly. "Chief Tom Koby of the Denver police conceded today that mistakes were made early in the JonBenét Ramsey investigation. Sources close to the case allege that . . ."
When she was done, she gave the camera her trademark smile and turned the show back over to Bryant and Katie. As she was gathering her script and notes, an assistant producer came and whispered in her ear, "Your agent is on the phone, Tully. He says it's urgent."
She talked to several members of the cast and crew as she made her way out of the studio and up to her office. There, she closed the door and picked up the phone, punching in line one. "This is Tully. Hi, George."
"There's a car waiting for you out front. I'll meet you at the Plaza in fifteen minutes."
"What's going on?"
"Touch up your makeup and move."
She hung up, told everyone who needed to know that she was leaving for a meeting, and left the building.
At the hotel, a liveried bellman appeared instantly to open the car door for her, saying, "Welcome to the Plaza, Ms. Hart."
"Thank you." She handed him a ten-dollar bill and went into the cream and gold marble lobby.
Her agent, George Davison, was waiting for her, looking elegant in a gray Armani suit. "Are you ready to make your dreams come true?"
"You're finally going to do that, huh?"
He led her down the hallway filled with glass cases that held expensive items for sale from the various gift shops and the sparkling jewelry store, and into the airy, high-ceilinged restaurant.
She saw instantly who they were meeting. In a back corner of the room hidden behind the world-class buffet was the president of CBS.
He stood at her arrival. "Hello, Tallulah, thank you for coming."
She missed a step but not her smile. "Hello." She took the seat across from him, watched George sit between them.
"I won't beat around the bush. As you know, The Today Show is killing our morning show in the ratings."
"At CBS, we think you're a big part of the show's success. I've particularly noticed your interviewing skills. Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco, the survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing. O.J.'s defense team and Lyle Menendez. You were great."
"We'd like to offer you the cohost spot on our show, beginning with the first show in '98. Our market research indicates that viewers connect with you. They like and trust you. That's exactly what we need to get our ratings back. What do you say?"
Tully felt as if she might float out of her chair. There was no way to contain her joy or make her smile anything other than huge. "I'm stunned. And honored."
What's the offer?" George said.
"One million dollars a year for five years."
"Two million a year," George said.
"Done. What do you say, Tully?"
Tully didn't look at her agent. She didn't have to; they'd been dreaming about an offer like this for years. "I say hell, yes. And can I start tomorrow?"
In writing, Kate found her voice again. She woke every morning at six and went into the office she'd set up in the spare bedroom. There, she worked diligently to craft and recraft her sentences, polishing each paragraph until it revealed all that she was trying to say. At some point in this first hour Johnny came in to kiss her goodbye, and then she was alone again until Marah woke and her real-life day began.