Page 70

"Do not."

"Good comeback."

"You wouldn't know good TV if it bit you in the ass."

Kate smiled, but it was as washed out as her complexion. With her bald head and sunken eyes, she looked impossibly young and fragile.

"Are you getting tired?" Tully said, sitting up. "Maybe we should go to sleep."

"I noticed that you apologized to me on air. In your own way." Her smile expanded. "I mean, without admitting you were a bitch or actually saying the words. You meant that you were sorry."

"Yeah, well, you're on morphine. You probably saw me fly, too."

Kate laughed, but it soon dissolved into coughing.

Tully sat up quickly. "Are you okay?"

"Hardly." She reached for the plastic glass on the table by her bed. Tully leaned over and guided the straw to her mouth. "I started the journal."

"That's great."

"I'll need you to help me remember," she said, putting the glass back. "So much of my life happened with you."

"Seems like our whole lives. God, Katie, we were such babies when we met."

"We're still kids," Katie said softly.

Tully heard the sadness in her friend's voice; it matched her own. The last thing she wanted to think about right now was how young they were. For years they'd teased each other about getting old. "How much have you written?"

"About ten pages." When Tully fell silent, Kate frowned. "You aren't going to demand to read it?"

"I don't want to intrude."

"Don't do that, Tully," Kate said.

"Do what?"

"Treat me as if I'm dying. I need you to be . . . you. It's the only way I remember who I am. Deal?"

"Okay," she said quietly, promising the only thing she had to give: herself. "It's a deal." She had to force a smile and both of them knew it. Some lies, it was obvious, would be unavoidable in the days ahead. "You'll need my input, of course. I was a witness to every important moment of your life. And I have a photographic memory. It's a gift. Like my ability to apply makeup and highlight hair."

Kate laughed. "There's my Tully."

Even with self-regulated pain meds, Kate found leaving the hospital a difficult endeavor. First of all, there was the crowd: her parents, her kids and husband, her aunt and uncle, her brother, and Tully. Second, there was just so much movement—out of bed, into the wheelchair, out of the wheelchair, into the car, out of the car, into Johnny's arms.

He carried her through the comfortable, pretty island house that smelled of scented candles and last night's dinner, just as it always had. He'd made spaghetti last night; she could tell. That meant tomorrow night it would be tacos. His two recipes. She rested her cheek against the soft wool of his sweater.

What will he cook for them when I'm gone?

The question made her draw in a sharp breath, which she forced herself to release slowly. Being home would hurt like this sometimes; so would being with her family. In a strange way, it would have been easier to spend her final days at the hospital, without all these reminders around her.

But easier wasn't the point anymore. Time with her family was what mattered.

Now they were all in the house, scattering like soldiers to their different tasks. Marah had herded the boys into their room to watch television. Mom was busy making casseroles; Dad was probably mowing the lawn. That left Johnny, Tully, and Kate, making their way down the hallway toward the guest room, which had been redecorated for her homecoming.

"The docs wanted you in a hospital bed," Johnny said. "I've got one, too, see? We'll be like Ricky and Lucy in our twin beds."

"Of course." She'd meant to sound matter-of-fact, to simply acknowledge what they both knew: soon she would have trouble sitting up and the bed would help, but her voice betrayed her. "Y-you painted," she said to her husband. The last time she'd seen this room it had been barn-red with white trim and red and blue furniture—a casual, beachy look with lots of painted antique pieces and shells in glass bowls. Now it was pale green, almost celery-colored, with rose accents. Family photos were everywhere, in white porcelain frames.

Tully stepped forward. "Actually, I did it."

"Something to do with shysters," Johnny said.

"Chakras," Tully corrected him. "It's stupid, I'm sure, but . . ." She shrugged. "I did a show on it once. Couldn't hurt."

Johnny carried Kate to her bed and tucked her in. "The bathroom down here is all set up for you. Everything has been installed—railings and a shower seat and all the stuff they recommended. A hospice nurse will be coming by . . ."

She wasn't sure when she closed her eyes. All she knew was that she was sleeping. Somewhere a radio was playing "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" and she could hear people talking in the distance. Then Johnny was kissing her and telling her she was beautiful and talking about the vacations they would someday take.

She awoke with a start. The room around her was dark now; she'd slept through the remaining daylight hours, obviously. Beside her, a eucalyptus-scented candle burned. The darkness lulled her for a moment, made her think she was alone.

Across the room, a shadow moved. Someone breathed.

Kate hit the button on her bed and moved to a sit. "Hey," she said.

"Hey, Mom."

She grew accustomed to the darkness and saw her daughter, sitting in a chair in the corner. Although Marah looked tired, she was so beautiful that Kate felt a cinching in her chest. Being home again made her see everything and everyone with perfect clarity, even in this gray darkness. When she looked at her teenage daughter, with her long black hair kept out of her eyes with little girl barrettes, she glimpsed the whole arc of life—the child she'd been, the girl she was, the woman she'd become.

"Hey, baby girl." She smiled and leaned sideways to turn on the bedside lamp. "But you aren't my baby anymore, are you?"

Marah stood up and moved forward, twisting her hands together. For all of her grown-up beauty, the fear in her eyes made her look ten years old again.

Kate tried to figure out what she should say. She knew how much Marah wanted everything to be normal, but it simply wasn't. From now on the words they said to each other would be weighted, remembered. That was a simple fact of life. Or of death.

"I've been mean to you," Marah said.

Kate had waited years for this moment, actually dreamed of it in the days when she and Marah had been at war; now she saw it from a distance and knew that those battles were just ordinary life—a girl trying to grow up and a mother trying to hang on. She'd give anything for another fight, actually; it would mean they had time.

"I was a bitch to grandma, too. That's what teen girls do: rag on their mothers. And your Aunt Tully was a bitch to everyone."

Marah made a sound that was half snort, half laughter, and pure relief. "I won't tell her you said that."

"Believe me, honey, it will come as no surprise to her. And I want you to know something: I'm proud of your big personality and spirit. It will take you far in this life." On those last words, she saw her daughter's eyes fill with tears. Kate opened her arms and Marah leaned down to her, pulling her into a fierce embrace.

Kate could have held on forever, that was how good it felt. For years, Marah's hugs had been perfunctory at best, or a reward for getting her way. This was the real thing. When Marah drew back she was crying. "Remember when you used to dance with me?"

"When you were really little, I'd hold on and twirl you around until you giggled. Once I did it so long you threw up all over me."

"We shouldn't have stopped," Marah said. "I shouldn't have, I mean."

"None of that," Kate said. "Put down the bed rail and sit by me."

Marah struggled with the rail, but finally got it down. She climbed into the bed and pulled her knees up.

"How's James?" Kate asked.

"I'm into Tyler now."

"And is he a nice boy?"

Marah laughed at that. "He's totally hot, if that's what you mean. He asked me to the junior prom. Can I go?"

"Of course you can. But you'll have a curfew."

Marah sighed. Some habits were in the teen DNA; the disappointed sigh, it seemed, simply couldn't be overcome, not even by cancer. "Okay."

Kate stroked her daughter's hair, knowing she should say something profound here, something that would be remembered, but nothing extraordinary came to her. "Did you apply for a summer job at the theater?"

"I'm not gonna work this summer. I'll be home."

"You can't put your life on hold, honey," Kate said quietly. "That's not how this is going to work. You said a summer job would help you get into USC anyway."

Marah shrugged, looked away. "I decided to go to UW, like you and Aunt Tully."

Kate worked to keep her voice level, to imply that this was simply an ordinary teen/parent talk and not a glimpse of the rocky future. "The USC drama school is the best around."

"You don't want me that far away."

That was true. Kate had gone out of her way to tell her defiant daughter that California was too far away and that drama was not a smart major.

"I don't want to talk about college," Marah said, and Kate let it go for now.

Their conversation drifted into other ports. For the next hour, they just talked. Not about It, the big thing on the horizon and how it would change them all. Instead they talked about boys and writing and the movies that were out.

"I got the lead in the summer play," Marah said after a while. "I wasn't going to try out because you were sick, but Daddy said I should."

"I'm glad you did. I know you'll be amazing."

Marah launched into a long monologue about the play, the costumes, and her part. "I can't wait for you to see it." Her eyes widened in realization of what she'd said, the subject she'd unintentionally broached. She slid off the bed, looking desperate to change the subject. "I'm sorry."

Kate reached up and touched her cheek. "It's okay. I'll be there."

Marah stared down at her. They both knew it could end up being a broken promise. "Remember when I was in middle school and Ashley stopped being my friend and I didn't know why?"

"Of course."

"You took me out to lunch and it was like we were friends."

Kate swallowed hard, tasting the bitterness of tears in the back of her throat. "We've always been friends, Marah. Even when we didn't know it."

"I love you, Mom."

"I love you, too."

Marah wiped her eyes and bolted out of the room, closing the door quietly behind her.

It opened a moment later, so fast Kate barely had time to wipe her eyes before she heard Tully say, "I've got a plan."

Kate laughed, grateful to be reminded that life could still be funny and surprising, even now. "You always do."

"Will you trust me?"

"To my everlasting ruination, yes."

Tully helped maneuver Kate into the wheelchair and wrapped her in blankets.

"Are we going to the North Pole?"

"We're going outside," Tully answered, opening the French doors that led out to the deck. "Are you warm enough?"