The horse sniffed the handful of grass, snorted wetly, and trotted away.
"She likes carrots."
Tully looked up sharply and saw her neighbor sitting on the top rail of the fence.
Long minutes passed in silence between them; the only noise was the horse's quiet nickering.
"It's late," the neighbor girl said.
"I love it out here at night. The stars are so bright. Sometimes, if you stare up at the sky long enough, you'll swear tiny white dots are falling all around you, like fireflies. Maybe that's how this street got its name. You probably think I'm a nerd for even saying that."
Tully wanted to answer but couldn't. Deep, deep inside she'd started to shake and it took all her concentration just to stand still.
The girl—Kate, Tully remembered—slipped down from her perch. She was wearing an oversized T-shirt with a Partridge Family decal on the front that was peeling off. As she moved forward, her boots made a sucking noise in the mud. "Hey, you don't look so good." A retainer drew the s into a long lisp. "And you reek like puke."
"I'm fine," she said, stiffening as Kate drew close.
"Are you okay? Really?"
To Tully's complete horror, she started to cry.
Kate stood there a moment, staring at her from behind those dork-o-rama glasses. Then, without saying anything, she hugged Tully.
Tully flinched at the contact; it was foreign and unexpected. She started to pull away, but found that she couldn't move. She couldn't remember the last time someone had held her like this, and suddenly she was clinging to this weirdo girl, afraid to let go, afraid that without Kate, she'd float away like the S.S. Minnow and be lost at sea.
"I'm sure she'll get better," Kate said when Tully's tears subsided.
Tully drew back, frowning. It took her a second to understand.
The cancer. Kate thought she was worried about her mom.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Kate said, taking out her retainer, putting it on the mossy top of a fence post.
Tully stared at her. In the silvery light from a full moon, she saw nothing but compassion in Kate's magnified green eyes, and she wanted to talk, wanted it with a fierceness that made her feel sick. But she didn't know how to start.
Kate said, "Come on," and led her up the hill to the slanted front porch of the farmhouse. There, she sat down, pulling her threadbare T-shirt over her bent knees. "My Aunt Georgia had cancer," she said. "It was grody. Lost all her hair. But she's fine now."
Tully sat down beside her, put her purse on the ground. The smell of vomit was strong. She pulled out a cigarette and lit up to cover the stench. Before she knew it, she'd said, "I went to a party down by the river tonight."
"A high school party?" Kate sounded impressed.
"Pat Richmond asked me out."
"The quarterback? Wow. My mom wouldn't let me stand in the same checkout line as a high school senior. She's so lame."
"She's not lame."
"She thinks eighteen-year-old boys are dangerous. She calls them penises with hands and feet. Tell me that isn't lame."
Tully glanced out over the field and took a deep, steadying breath. She couldn't believe she was going to tell this girl what happened tonight, but the truth was a fire inside her. If she didn't get rid of it, she'd burn up. "He raped me."
Kate turned to her. Tully felt those green eyes boring into her profile, but she didn't move, didn't turn. Her shame was so overwhelming that she couldn't stand to see it reflected in Kate's eyes. She waited for Kate to say something, to call her an idiot, but the silence just went on and on. Finally, she couldn't take it anymore. She looked sideways.
"Are you okay?" Kate asked quietly.
Tully relived it all in those few words. Tears stung her eyes, blurred her vision.
Once again, Kate hugged her. Tully let herself be comforted for the first time since she was little. When she finally drew back, she tried to smile. "I'm drowning you."
"We should tell someone."
"No way. They'd say it was my fault. This is our secret, okay?"
"Okay." Kate frowned as she said it.
Tully wiped her eyes and took another drag on her cigarette. "Why are you being so nice to me?"
"You looked lonely. Believe me, I know how that feels."
"You do? But you have a family."
"They have to like me." Kate sighed. "The kids at school treat me like I've got an infectious disease. I used to have friends, but . . . you probably don't know what in the heck I'm talking about. You're so popular."
"Popular just means lots of people think they know you."
"I'd take that."
Silence fell between them. Tully finished her cigarette and put it out. They were so different, she and Kate, as full of contrasts as this dark field bathed in moonlight, but it felt so completely easy to talk to her. Tully found herself almost smiling, and on this, the worst night of her life. That was something.
For the next hour, they sat there, talking now and then and sometimes just sitting in silence. They didn't say anything really important or share any more secrets, they just talked.
Finally, Kate yawned and Tully stood up. "I better book."
They got up and walked down to the road. At the mailboxes, Kate stopped. "Well. 'Bye."
"'Bye." Tully stood there a moment, feeling awkward. She wanted to hug Kate, maybe even cling to her and tell her how much this night had been helped by her, but she didn't dare. She'd learned a thing or two about vulnerability from her mother, and she felt too fragile now to risk humiliation. Turning, she headed down to her house. Once inside, she went straight to the shower. There, with the hot water beating down on her, she thought about what had happened to her tonight—what she'd let happen because she wanted to be cool—and she cried. When she was done and the tears had turned into a hard little knot in her throat, she took the memory of this night and boxed it up. She shelved it in the back alongside memories of the times Cloud had abandoned her and immediately began working on forgetting it was there.
Kate lay awake long after Tully had left. Finally, she threw back the covers and got out of bed.
Downstairs, she found what she needed: a small statue of the Virgin Mary, a votive candle in a red glass holder, a book of matches, and her grandmother's old rosary beads. Taking everything back up to her room, she created an altar on top of her dresser, and lit the candle.
"Heavenly Father," she prayed, head bowed and hands clasped, "please watch out for Tully Hart and help her through this hard time. Also, please heal her mother's cancer. I know You can help them. Amen." She said a few Hail Marys, and then went back to bed.
But all night she tossed and turned, dreaming about the encounter with Tully, wondering what would happen in the morning. Should she talk to Tully today at school, smile at her? Or was she expected to pretend it had never happened? There were rules to popularity, secret codes written in invisible ink that only girls like Tully could read. All Kate knew was that she didn't want to make a mistake and embarrass herself. She knew that sometimes the popular girls were "secret friends" with nerds; like, they smiled and said hi when they weren't in school or when their parents were friends. Maybe that was how it would be with her and Tully.
Finally, she quit trying to sleep and got up. Putting on her robe, she went downstairs. In the living room, her dad looked up from the newspaper and smiled. "Top of the mornin' to you, Katie Scarlett. Come give your old man a hug."
She plopped into his lap, rested her cheek against the rough wool of his shirt.
He tucked a strand of hair around her ear. She could see how tired he looked; he was working so hard, doing double shifts at Boeing so they could afford their yearly family camping trip. "How's school going?"
It was the same question he always asked. Once, a long time ago, she'd actually answered, said, "Not so good, Dad," and then waited for his advice or comfort or something, but no such words had come. He'd heard what he wanted to hear, not what she'd said. Her mom had said it was because he worked so many hours at the plant.
Kate could have been upset by his distraction, but somehow it had made her love him even more. He never yelled at her or told her to pay attention or reminded her that she was responsible for her own happiness. Those were her mother's words; her dad just quietly went on loving her no matter what.
"Great," she answered, smiling to reinforce the lie.
"How could it not be?" he said, kissing her temple. "You're the prettiest girl in town, eh? And your mum named you after one of the great literary heroines of all time."
"Yeah, Scarlett O'Hara and I have a ton in common."
"You'll see," he said, chuckling. "There's a fair bit of life still ahead of you, missy."
She looked at him. "Do you think I'll be pretty when I grow up?"
"Ah, Katie," he said. "You're a rare beauty already."
She took those words and tucked them in her pocket like worry stones; every now and again as she got ready for school she felt them, turned them around in her fingers.
By the time she was dressed and ready to go, the house was empty. The Mularkey family bus had left the station.
She was so nervous she arrived at the bus stop early. Every minute that passed seemed to last an eternity, but there was still no sign of Tully when the school bus drove up and came to a shuddering stop.
Kate dropped her chin and took a seat in the first row.
All through morning classes, she looked for Tully, but didn't see her. At lunch she hurried past the crowd of popular kids, who were busy cutting to the front of the food line whenever they felt like it, and sat down at one of the long tables at the very end of the cafeteria. On the other side of the room, kids were laughing and talking and shoving each other; these tables in social Siberia were sadly quiet, though. Kate, like the others seated around her, rarely looked up.
It was a survival skill the unpopular kids learned early: junior high was like the jungles of Vietnam; it was best to crouch low and keep quiet. So intent was she on her lunch that when someone came up to her and said, "Hey," she practically jumped out of her seat.
Even on this cool May day, she wore a cut-to-there miniskirt, white go-go boots, shiny black panty hose, and a tube top. Several peace-symbol necklaces bounced against her cleavage. Her hair glinted with copper streaks in the light. A huge macramé-knot purse hung against her thigh. "Have you told anyone about last night?"
"No. Of course not."
"So, we're friends, right?"
Kate didn't know which surprised her more: the question or the vulnerability in Tully's eyes. "We're friends."
"Excellent." Tully pulled a package of Twinkies out of her purse, then sat down beside Kate. "Now let's talk about makeup. You need help, and I'm not being a bitch. Really. I just know about fashion. It's a gift. Can I drink your milk? Good. Thanks. Are you gonna eat that banana? I could come to your house after school . . ."
Kate stood outside the drugstore looking up and down the street for someone who might know her mom. "Are you sure about this?"