"And the dates?"
"November fourteenth through the twenty-first."
"During school?" Kate said sharply.
"It's just a week—" Marah began, but Kate cut her off.
"Just a week? Are you kidding?"
Marah glanced nervously at Tully. "I can take my homework and do it at night and on the plane, but if I get discovered, I wouldn't need to finish high school anyway. I'd have tutors."
"How many of the kids in your modeling class were invited to attend?" Johnny asked, sounding calm and reasonable.
"Everyone," Marah answered.
"Everyone?" Kate got to her feet. "Everyone? That's not anything special, then, it's some racket to wring money out of us. You actually think—"
"Kate," Johnny said, giving her The Look.
She yanked hard on her temper, took a deep breath. "I didn't mean that, Marah. I just . . . you can't miss a week of school, and three thousand dollars is a lot of money."
"I'll pay it," Tully said.
Kate had never wanted to hit her best friend more. "She can't miss school."
Kate held up a hand for silence. "Don't say more," she said to Tully.
Marah burst into tears. "See?" she yelled at Tully. "She thinks I'm a baby and she won't let me do anything."
Johnny got to his feet. "Marah, come on, you're thirteen years old."
"Brooke Shields and Kate Moss were millionaires by fourteen because their mothers loved them, right, Tully?" She wiped her eyes and looked at Johnny. "Please, Daddy?"
He shook his head. "I'm sorry, honey."
Marah spun on her heel and ran upstairs; all the way up, until she slammed her bedroom door, they could hear her crying.
"I'll go talk to her," Johnny said, sighing as he headed for the stairs.
Kate turned to her best friend. "Are you insane?"
"It's a modeling school, not a crack house."
"Damn it, Tully, she doesn't need to be in that screwed-up world. I've told you that before. It's dangerous."
"I'll help her through it. I'll go with her."
Kate was so mad she could hardly breathe. Once again Tully had made Kate look bad in front of Marah, and frankly, she didn't need any help screwing up her relationship with her daughter. "You're not her mother. I am. You can whoop it up with her and have a blast and live like the world is your Never-Never Land. It's my job to keep her safe."
"Safe isn't everything," Tully said. "Sometimes you have to take a risk. Nothing ventured, nothing gained."
"Tully, you don't know what in the hell you're talking about. My thirteen-year-old daughter is not going to New York City on some scam of a modeling trip, and you are certainly not going to chaperone her. The subject is closed."
"Fine," Tully said. "I was just trying to help."
Kate heard the hurt in her friend's voice, but she was too tired, and this was too important, to let herself yield. "Fine. And next time my daughter comes to you with a plan that includes skipping a week of school or modeling in a faraway place, I would appreciate it if you'd let me discuss it with her."
"But you don't. You two just scream at each other. Even Johnny says—"
"You've talked to Johnny about this?"
"He's worried about you and Marah. He says it's like World War II around here some nights."
That was about the third sucker punch tonight, and it hurt so much she said, "You better leave, Tully. This is a family matter."
"But . . . I thought I was family."
"Goodnight," Kate said quietly, then walked out of the room.
Tully should have gone straight home and tried to forget the whole thing, but by the time the ferry pulled back into downtown Seattle, she was a wreck. Instead of turning left on Alaskan Way, she turned right and hit the gas.
In record time she was in Snohomish, driving past the altered landmarks of her youth. The town was a tourist stop now, full of trendy cafés and upscale antique shops.
None of it mattered much to her; what changed, what stayed the same . . . she didn't care. Even under the best of circumstances, she was only barely connected to the yesterdays of her life, and tonight was far from the best of circumstances. Still, when she turned onto Firefly Lane, it was like rocketing into the past.
She turned onto the paved driveway and drove up to the small white farmhouse with the glossy black trim. Over the years Mrs. Mularkey had turned the ragged yard into an English-style garden full of flowers. In this late autumn, the whole garden seemed to glow golden. The yard and hanging baskets were a riot of red geraniums, visible in the orangey porch light.
Tully parked the car and went to the front door, ringing the bell.
Mr. M. answered, and for a second there, standing on the porch, looking up at him, Tully felt her whole life flash before her eyes. He looked older, of course, with a vanishing hairline and an expanding waistline, but dressed as he was in a white T-shirt and worn jeans, he looked so much like he used to that she felt young again, too. "Hey, Mr. M."
"You're here late. Everything okay?"
"I just needed to talk to Mrs. M. I won't stay long."
"You know you're welcome to stay as long as you want." He stepped back to let her in, then went to the base of the stairs and yelled up, "Margie, come on down. Trouble's here." He flashed Tully a smile that coaxed out one of her own.
In no time, Mrs. M. came down the stairs, zipping up the red velour robe she'd worn for as long as Tully had known her. No matter how many expensive robe-and-nightgown sets Tully sent Mrs. M. over the years, this old red one remained her favorite. "Tully," she said, pulling off her big beige-rimmed bifocals. "Is everything okay?"
There was no point in lying. "Not really."
Mrs. M. went straight to the wet bar in the living room—an addition in the late eighties—and poured two glasses of wine. Handing one to Tully, she led the way into the living room and sat down on the new leopard-print sofa. Behind their heads the wall was full of family photos now. Jesus and Elvis still held center stage, but around them were dozens of school photos of Marah and the twins; Johnny and Kate's wedding pictures; Sean's graduate school graduation photos; and a few here and there of Tully. "Okay, what's the problem?"
Tully sat down in the newest edition of Mr. Mularkey's favorite recliner. "Kate is mad at me."
"Marah called me last week and wanted to talk to me about a modeling thing in New York—"
"I offered to help her talk to her folks about it, but the second Kate heard about it, she went wacko. She refused to even listen to Marah."
"Marah is thirteen years old."
"That's old enough to—"
"No," Mrs. M. said crisply, then she smiled gently. "I know you're just trying to help, Tully, but Kate's right to try to protect Marah."
"Marah hates her."
"That's how it seems with thirteen-year-old girls and their mothers. You don't know, maybe, because Cloud was so different, but girls and their mothers often go through a rough patch. You don't make it better by giving the kids everything they want."
"I'm not suggesting they should give her everything, but she has real talent. I think she could be a supermodel."
"And if she were, what would happen?"
"She'd be rich and famous. She could be a millionaire by seventeen."
Mrs. M. leaned forward. "You're mega-rich, right?"
"Does that make you whole? Is success worth what Marah would give up for it—her childhood, her innocence, her family? I have watched some of those made-for-TV movies about young models. There's all kinds of drugs and sex and such around them."
"I'd watch out for her. What matters is that she has found something she loves. That should be nurtured, not ignored. And I'm afraid Marah and Kate won't find their way back. You should hear how Marah talks about her."
"You're worried about Marah," Mrs. M. said, eyeing Tully over the rim of her glass. "I think you're looking at the wrong player. Kate is the one who needs you now."
"The problems with Marah are eating her up alive. Those two have to figure out how to talk to each other without screaming or crying." She looked at Tully. "And you need to be Katie's friend first."
"Are you saying it's my fault?"
"Of course not. I'm saying that Katie needs her best friend beside her. You two have always been each other's armor and sword. I know how much Marah idolizes you—and how much you like to be idolized." She smiled knowingly. "But you can't take sides in this unless it's Katie's."
"I just wanted to—"
"She's not your daughter."
And there it was. Tully hadn't realized until just now, this second, what had driven her to get so involved. She loved Marah, sure, but there was more to it than that, wasn't there? And Mrs. M. had seen it. Marah was the perfect child for Tully—gorgeous, ambitious, a little selfish. Best of all, she thought Tully was flawless. "So, what do I say to Marah?"
"That she has her whole life in front of her. If she's as good and talented as you believe, she'll make it when she's old enough to handle it."
Tully sat back in the recliner, sighing. "How long do you think Kate will stay mad at me?"
Mrs. M. laughed. "You two have more ups and downs than an Internet stock. Everything will be fine. Just quit trying to be Marah's best friend and be there for Katie."
Kate never tired of the view from her own back porch. Tonight, on this crisp late October evening, the sky above Seattle was an endless, star-filled black. In the glorious moonlight, every skyscraper looked sharp and distinct, so much so it was easy to imagine you could actually see the individual squares of glass and granite and steel.
Sounds were clearer here by the water as well. Maple leaves turned color and fell from the nearby trees, landing like quickened footsteps on the marshy ground; squirrels scurried from branch to branch, no doubt gathering their food for a cold they sensed was drawing near, and as always there was the tide, moving forward and back against the shore with a rhythm connected to the faraway moon. Here, on her back porch, only the seasons changed, and each gave the landscape an amazing new look.
Only a few feet behind her, through an antique wooden door, the changes came fast enough to leave you breathless. Her teenage daughter was sprouting like a tree, blooming every day into another variation of who she would someday become. Moods twisted her up and left her looking sometimes like a girl who'd just washed up onshore, unable to quite remember who she was and who she wanted to be.
Kate's baby boys were growing up, too. Kindergartners now, they were beginning to make their own friends and choose their own clothes and selectively answer her questions. In the blink of an eye, they, too, would be approaching adolescence, pinning magazine pictures to their bedroom walls and demanding privacy.
So fast . . .
She stood on the porch a few minutes longer, until the sky was charcoal-gray and the stars appeared above the distant city, then she went back inside, locking the door behind her.