Marah slid out of the booth, grinning. "You're the best mommy ever."
Kate laughed. "I just hope you remember that when you're a teenager."
Tully remembered the years by the stories she covered. In 2002, she vacationed in Europe, St. Barts, and Thailand. She went to the Oscars, won an Emmy, graced the cover of People magazine, and redecorated her apartment, but none of that stayed with her. What she remembered were the stories. She'd covered the launch of Operation Anaconda against the Taliban, the escalating violence in the region, the trial of Milosevic for crimes against humanity, and the start of the war against Iraq.
By the spring of 2003, she was exhausted, worn down by the violence. When she finally returned home, it wasn't much better. Everywhere she went she was in a crowd, and nowhere did she feel more isolated than in a group of people who fawned over her, and sucked up to her, but didn't really know her.
Although no one who watched her on television would notice it, she was quietly coming undone. Grant hadn't called her in almost four months, and the last time they'd spoken before that it hadn't gone well.
I just don't want what you want, love, he'd said, not even bothering to look sad when he said it.
And what is that? she'd snapped back, surprised to feel tears sting her eyes.
What you always want: more.
It shouldn't have surprised her. God knew she'd heard the same thing often enough in her life. She could even admit the truth of it. She did want more lately. She wanted a real life, not this perfect, glittery cotton candy one she'd created for herself.
But she had no real idea how to go about starting over at her age. She loved her job too much to give it up; besides, she'd been famous and rich for so long that she couldn't imagine being ordinary again.
Now, beneath a surprisingly warm sun, she walked down the busy streets of Manhattan, watching the fast-moving locals dodging between brightly dressed tourists. Today was the first sunny day after a long snowy winter, and nothing changed the mood of New York like the sun. People poured out of their boxy apartments, put on their walking shoes, and went outside. To her right, Central Park was a green oasis. For a moment, when she looked at it, she saw her own past: the Quad at UW; kids running around, throwing Frisbees, playing hacky sack. It had been twenty years since she'd left the campus for the last time. So much life had happened in those years, but right now it all felt as close as her own shadow.
Smiling, she shook her head to clear it. She'd have to call Katie tonight and tell her about this senior moment.
She was just about to start walking again when she saw him.
Down a low green hillside, standing on the paved path, watching two teenage girls roller-skate around him.
It was the first time she'd said his name aloud in years and it tasted as sweet as almond liquor. Just the sight of him peeled back the carapace of years and made her feel young again.
She walked down to the start of the path and turned toward him. A huge tree spread out above her like an umbrella, blocking out the sunlight, making her instantly cold.
What would she say to him after all these years? What would he say to her? The last time they'd been together he'd asked her to marry him; they'd never seen each other again. He'd known her so well then, enough that he hadn't stuck around to be told no. But they'd loved each other. With the wisdom of time and the passing of years, she knew that. She knew, too, that love didn't evaporate. It faded, perhaps, lost its weight like bones left out in the sun, but it didn't go away.
It occurred to her suddenly, sharply, that she wanted to be in love. Like Johnny and Kate. She wanted not to feel so damned alone in the world.
She faltered only once as she walked toward him. Out of the shadows and into the sunlight.
And there he was, standing in front of her, the man she'd never quite been able to evict from her dreams. She said his name aloud, too quietly for him to hear.
He looked up and saw her, his smile fading slowly. "Tully?"
She saw his mouth move and felt him say her name, but just then a dog barked and a pair of skateboarders rumbled past her.
And then he was moving toward her. It was like every movie she'd ever seen, every dream she'd ever had. He pulled her into his arms and held her.
Too soon, though, he let go of her and stepped back. "I knew I'd see you again."
"You always had more faith than I did."
"Almost everyone does," he said, smiling. "So how are you?"
"I'm on CBS. I do—"
"Believe me," he said gently, "I know. I'm proud of you, Tully. I always knew you'd get to the top." He studied her for a long time, then said, "How's Katie?"
"She married Johnny. I hardly see them lately."
"Ah," he said, nodding as if a question had been answered.
She felt exposed by his glance. "Ah, what?"
"You're lonely. The world isn't enough after all."
She frowned up at him. They were standing so close that the merest move would be a kiss, but she couldn't imagine crossing that small distance. He looked younger than she remembered, more handsome. "How do you do that?" she whispered.
"Dad, watch this!"
As if from far away, Tully heard the girl's voice. She turned slowly around, saw two young women roller-skating toward them. She'd been wrong before; they were older than teenagers. One was the spitting image of Chad—sharp features, black hair, eyes that crinkled when she smiled.
But it was the other woman who held her attention. Maybe thirty, thirty-five, with a bright smile and a ready laugh. She wore the colors of a tourist: brand-new jeans, thick pink cable-knit sweater, aqua-blue hat and gloves.
"My daughter. She's in grad school at NYU," Chad said. "And Clarissa. The woman I live with."
"You still live in Nashville?" It was like rolling a log uphill, pushing those words out. The last thing she wanted was to make ordinary conversation with him. "Still teaching bright-eyed believers about the news?"
He took her by the shoulders, turned her to face him. "You didn't want me, Tully," he said, and this time she heard the gruffness of deep emotion in his voice. "I was ready to love you forever, but—"
He touched her cheek in a fleeting, almost desperate caress.
"I should have come to Tennessee with you," she said.
He shook his head. "You have big dreams. That was one of the things I loved most about you."
"Loved," she said, knowing it was foolish to be hurt.
"Some things just don't happen."
She nodded. "Especially when you're too afraid to let them."
He took her in his arms again and held her with more passion in that instant than Grant had tendered in years. She waited for a kiss that never came. Instead, he let her go, then took her arm and walked her back up to the road.
In the sudden coldness of shade, she shivered and leaned against him. "Give me some advice, Wiley. I seem to have screwed up my life."
Out on the sunny sidewalk, he faced her again. "You're successful beyond your wildest dreams and it still isn't enough."
She winced at the look in his eyes. "I guess I should have stopped to smell a few of those flowers. Hell, I didn't even see them."
"You're not alone, Tully. Everyone has people in their life. A family."
"I guess you've forgotten Cloud."
"Or maybe you have."
"What do you mean?"
He glanced down to the park, where his daughter was holding hands with his girlfriend; one was teaching the other to skate backward. "I lost a lot of years with my daughter. One day I just decided it had been too long and I went to find her."
"You always were an optimist."
"That's the funny thing. So were you." He leaned down, kissed her on the cheek, and drew back. "Keep lighting the world on fire, Tully," he said, and then walked away.
They were almost the exact same words he'd written to her all those years ago. She hadn't recognized the sad desperation in them when they were letters on a piece of paper. Now she saw the truth: they were both an encouragement and an indictment. What good did it do to light the world on fire if she had to watch the glow alone?
If there was one thing Tully had always done well, it was to ignore unpleasantness. For most of her life she'd been able to box up bad memories or disappointments and store them deep in the back of her mind, in a place so dark they couldn't be seen. Sure, she dreamed about the bad times, and woke occasionally in a cold sweat with memories on the oily surface of consciousness, but when daylight came, she pushed those thoughts back into their hiding place and found it easy to forget.
But now, for the first time, she'd found something she could neither file away in the darkness nor forget.
Chad. Seeing him like that, standing there in her adopted city, had shaken her to the core. She couldn't seem to dislodge the memory. There was so much she hadn't said to him, hadn't asked.
In the three months since they'd run into each other, she found herself remembering every detail, going over the seconds like a forensic scientist, looking for clues to the meaning of it all. He became a kind of marker for everything she'd given up for this life of hers. The road she hadn't taken.
And even worse than all of that was the memory of what he'd said about Cloud. You're not alone, Tully. Everyone has a family. Those weren't precisely the words, but they were close enough. The gist of it.
Like a cancerous cell, the idea replicated in her mind and grew. She found herself thinking of Cloud, really thinking. She focused on the times her mother came back for her instead of the times she left. It was dangerous, Tully knew, to hang on to the positive when so much negative existed, and yet, she wondered suddenly if that had been her mistake. Had she been so intent on hating her mother, on shelving and forgetting the disappointments, that she'd missed the meaning of Cloud's many returns?
The thought of that, the hope of it, wouldn't fit in her box, wouldn't remain in the dark.
Finally, she quit running from the idea and sat down and studied it. That had led her to this strange and frightening journey. She had taken two weeks off of work, called it a vacation, packed a suitcase, and boarded a plane heading west.
A little less than eight hours after she left Manhattan, she was on Bainbridge Island, pulling up to the Ryan house in a sleek black limousine.
Now Tully stood in the driveway, listening to the car drive away, tires crunching on gravel. From beyond the house, in the backyard, she could hear waves washing onto the pea-gravel beach. That meant the tide was coming in. On this beautiful sunny early summer afternoon, the old-fashioned farmhouse looked like something out of a photo album of the Good Life. A fresh coat of stain made the shingles look like caramel and the white, glossy trim caught the sunlight and kept it. Flowers ran riot through the yard, creating bursts of color everywhere she looked. Toys and bikes lay scattered about, reminding her sharply of the old days, back when they'd been the Firefly Lane girls. Their bikes had been magic carpets to another world.
Come on, Katie. Let go.
Tully smiled. She hadn't thought about that summer in years. 1974. The beginning of it all. Meeting Kate had changed her life, and all because they'd dared to reach out for each other, dared to say, I want to be your friend.