She walked up the weed-veined concrete path to the front door. Even before she got to the stoop, she could hear the noise coming from within. It didn't surprise her. According to Kate, the first half of 2003 had been wild and crazy. Marah hadn't eased into the teen years; she'd lurched. And the boys had gone from loud, into-everything toddlers to louder, even more destructive five-year-olds. Every time Tully called, it seemed, Kate was driving someone somewhere.
Tully rang the doorbell. Normally, of course, she'd just walk in, but normally, she'd be expected. This trip had been so spur-of-the-moment that she hadn't called ahead. To be honest, she hadn't really expected to make it. She'd thought she'd chicken out along the way. But here she was.
The sound of footsteps shook the old house. Then the door opened and Marah stood there. "Aunt Tully!" she shrieked, launching herself forward.
Tully caught her goddaughter and held her tightly. When they drew apart, she stared at the girl in front of her, a little nonplussed. It had been only seven or eight months since she'd seen Marah—a blip of time—and yet the girl in front of her was a stranger. A near-woman, Marah was taller than Tully, with milky pale skin, penetrating brown eyes, lush black hair that fell in a waterfall down her back, and cheekbones to die for. "Marah Rose," she said. "You're all grown up. And you're gorgeous. Have you tried modeling?"
Marah's smile made her even more breathtakingly beautiful. "Really? My mom thinks I'm a baby."
Tully laughed. "You, my dear, are no baby." Before she could say more, Johnny came down the stairs, holding a squirming boy in each arm. Halfway down, he saw her and stopped. Then he smiled. "You shouldn't have let her in, Marah. She's got a suitcase."
Tully laughed and closed the door behind her.
"Katie," Johnny yelled up the stairs. "You better come down here. You won't believe who has come to visit." He put the boys down on the floor at the base of the steps and went to Tully, drawing her into his arms. She couldn't help thinking how good it felt simply to be held. It had been a long time.
"Tully!" Kate's voice rose above the other sounds in the room as she hurried down the stairs and pulled Tully into a hug. When Kate drew back, she was smiling.
"Now, what in the hell are you doing here? Don't you know I need notice for one of your trips? Now you'll give me crap about the haircut I need and the foil I missed."
"Don't forget the makeup you don't have on. But I could give you a makeover. I'm good at that. It's a gift."
The past enveloped them, made them laugh.
Kate linked arms with Tully and led her to the sofa. There, with her suitcase positioned at the door like a bodyguard, they spent at least an hour catching up on each others' lives. At around three o'clock they moved their little party to the backyard, where the boys and Marah competed with Kate for Tully's attention. When darkness began to fall, Johnny fired up the barbeque, and on a picnic table in the grass, beneath a dome of stars and beside the placid Sound, Tully had her first home-cooked meal in months. Afterward, they played a rousing game of Candy Land with the boys. While Kate and Johnny were upstairs putting the twins to bed, Tully sat out in the backyard with Marah, each wrapped against the night's chill in yet another of Mrs. Mularkey's famous afghans.
"What's it like to be famous?"
Tully hadn't really thought about that in years; she'd simply taken it for granted. "It's pretty great, actually. You always get the best tables, get into all the best places; people give you free stuff all the time. Everyone waits for you. And since I'm a journalist instead of a movie star, the paparazzi leave me alone for the most part."
Tully smiled. "It's been a while since I cared about parties, but yeah, I get invited to a lot of them. And don't forget the clothes. Designers send me dresses all the time. All I have to do is wear them."
"Wow," Marah said. "That is so totally cool."
Behind them, a screen door screeched open and banged closed. There was the sound of something—a table, maybe—being dragged across the deck. Then the music started. Jimmy Buffet, "Margaritaville."
"You know what that means," Kate said, appearing beside them with two margaritas.
Marah immediately whined, "I'm old enough to stay up. Besides, there's no school tomorrow. It's a teacher contract day."
"Bedtime, little one," Kate said, bending down to offer Tully a drink.
Marah looked at Tully as if to say, See? I told you she thinks I'm a baby. Tully couldn't help laughing. "Your mom and I were once in a hurry to grow up, too. We used to sneak out of the house and steal my mother's—"
"Tully," Kate said sharply. "The old stories won't interest her."
"My mom sneaked out of the house? What did Grandma do?"
"She put her on restriction for life. And made her wear clothes from the sale rack at Fred Meyer," Tully answered.
Marah shuddered at the thought.
"Polyester," Kate added. "For an entire summer I was afraid to be near open flames."
"You two are lying to me," Marah said, crossing her arms.
"Us? Lie? Never," Tully said, taking a sip of her drink.
Marah got out of her chair, gave them a long-suffering sigh, and headed back into the house. As soon as the door banged shut, Tully and Kate laughed.
"Tell me we weren't like that," Tully said.
"My mom swears I was. You were little Miss Perfect around her. Until you got us arrested, that is."
"The first chink in the armor."
Laughing, Kate sat down in the Adirondack chair beside her, wrapping herself in one of her mom's afghans.
Tully hadn't realized how tense she'd been, how tight her neck and shoulders had become, until that moment, when she began to relax. As always, Kate was her safety net, her security blanket. With her best friend beside her, she could finally trust herself. She leaned back in her chair and stared up at the night sky. She'd never been one of those people who felt insignificant beneath the heavens, but suddenly she understood why some people did; it was a matter of perspective. She'd spent so much of her life in a rush for the finish line that she'd been left out of breath. If she'd paid a little more attention to the scenery and a little less to the goal line, she might not be here now, a forty-two-year-old single woman searching for the tattered remnant of a family.
"So, are you going to make me ask?" Kate finally said.
There was no point in hiding the truth, although she had an almost instinctive need to do just that. The music changed to ABBA, "Knowing Me, Knowing You." "I saw Chad," she said quietly.
"A few months ago, right? In Central Park?"
"And seeing him then made you jump on a plane and fly out to see me now. I completely understand."
Before Tully could answer, the door opened behind them again and Johnny walked out, holding a beer. Dragging another chair over to where they were, he sat down. The three of them formed a ragged semicircle in the grassy yard and faced the dark Sound. Moonlight illuminated the waves that lapped against the sand. "Has she told you yet?"
"What are you two, telepaths?" Tully said. "I was just getting started."
"Actually," Kate said, "she reminded me that she saw Chad a couple of months ago."
"Ah," Johnny said, nodding as if that explained Tully's unexpected cross-country trip.
"What does that mean, ah?" she asked, irritated suddenly. It was exactly what Chad had done.
"He's your Moby-Dick," Johnny answered.
Tully gave him a look. "I never said a thing about his dick."
"Come on, Tully," Kate said, putting her hand on her husband's arm. "What's the matter?"
She looked at both of them, sitting so close together, a wife and husband who still laughed together and touched each other after so many years of marriage, and her chest felt tight with longing. "I'm tired of being alone," she finally said. She'd held the words back so long that when they finally came out they sounded worn, as polished as beach stones.
"What about Grant?" Johnny asked.
"I thought you said Chad lived with a woman," Kate said, leaning forward.
"This isn't really about Chad. I mean, it is, but not in the way you think. He pointed out that I have a family," Tully said.
Kate drew back. "You mean Cloud?"
"She's my mother."
"Biologically speaking. A reptile is a better parent, and they bury their eggs and leave."
"I know you're only trying to protect me, Kate, but it's easy for you to discount her. You have a family."
"She hurts you every time you see her."
"But she kept coming back. Maybe that meant something."
"She kept leaving, too," Kate said gently. "And each time it broke your heart."
"I'm stronger now."
"What are you two actually saying? It's like you're speaking in code," Johnny said.
"I want to go find her. I've got her last known address—I send money every month. I thought maybe if I could get her into a treatment program we'd have a chance."
"She's been in treatment a lot," Kate pointed out.
"I know, but never with support. Maybe that's all she needed."
"I'm hearing a lot of maybes," Kate said.
Tully looked from Kate to Johnny and finally back to Kate. "I know it's crazy and it probably won't work and no doubt I'll end up sobbing or drinking or both, but I'm tired of being so damned alone and I don't have a lover or kids to count on. What I do have is a mother, as flawed as she is. And Katie, I want you to come help me find her. It shouldn't take more than a few days."
Kate looked completely taken aback by that. "What?"
"I want to find her. I can't do it alone."
"But . . . I can't just leave for a few days. The elementary school carnival is tomorrow. I'm the games chairman. I have to be there to run the games and distribute the prizes."
Tully's breath came out in a rush of disappointment. "Oh. Well. What about this weekend?"
"I'm sorry, Tul. Really. Mom and I are running the church food drive on Saturday and Sunday. If I didn't show up it would be a real mess. On Monday and Tuesday I'm volunteering at the Parks and Rec Department, but maybe I could go with you for a few days at the end of next week."
"If I wait I won't go," Tully said, trying to gather the courage to do it alone. "I guess I can go by myself. I was just worried—"
"You should go with a crew," Johnny said.
Tully looked at him. "What do you mean?"
"You know, film it. You're a big star with a poor-little-rich-girl story. I don't mean to sound insensitive, but your viewers would love to go on this journey with you. My boss would skip on tacks to air it."
Tully turned the unexpected idea around in her head. It was dangerous for her, certainly; she could be humiliated by her mother. Then again, she could be triumphant, too. A mother-daughter reunion would be TV gold. It surprised her, frankly, that she hadn't thought of it herself. An intimate portrait like this could make her Q rating—her recognition factor—skyrocket. Was it worth the risk?