"I'm sweating. Grab that pouch off the nightstand, will you?"
Tully grabbed the pouch, dropped it in Kate's lap, and then took control of the wheelchair.
The yard on this cool June night was stunningly, unexpectedly beautiful. Stars blanketed the sky and cast pinpricks of light onto the jet-black Sound. A full moon hung poised above the glittering distant city lights. The grassy lawn rolled down toward the water. Blue moonlight illuminated a trail of toys and bikes left on the side of the wide hard-packed dirt path that led to the beach.
Tully maneuvered her off the deck, down a wide wooden ramp that was a very new addition; then she paused. "Close your eyes."
"It's dark out, Tully. I hardly need—"
"I can't wait forever."
Kate laughed. "Fine. I'm doing it so you don't throw one of your tantrums."
"I do not throw tantrums. Now close your eyes and put your arms out from your sides, like an airplane's wings."
Kate closed her eyes and extended her arms.
Tully pushed the wheelchair over the bumpy bit of grass. There, at the lip of the slow hill that rolled down to the beach, she paused. "We're kids again," she whispered into Kate's ear. "It's the seventies and we've just sneaked out of your house and gotten our bikes." She began to push the chair forward; it went slowly, bumping over the uneven grass, dipping in potholes, and still Tully talked. "We're on Summer Hill, riding without our hands, laughing like crazy people, thinking we're invincible."
Kate felt the breeze along her bare head, tugging at her ears, making her eyes water. She could smell the evergreen trees and rich, black earth. She put her head back and laughed. For a moment, just a heartbeat really, she was a kid again, on Firefly Lane with her best friend beside her, believing she could fly.
When the ride was over and they were on the beach, she opened her eyes and looked up at Tully. In that moment, that one poignant smile, she remembered everything about them. The starlight looked like fireflies, falling down around them.
Tully helped her into one of the beach chairs, and then sat down beside her.
They sat side by side, as they'd done so often in the past, talking about nothing that mattered, this and that.
Kate glanced back at the house, saw that no one was on the deck, and leaned toward Tully, whispering, "Do you really want to feel like a kid again?"
"No, thanks. I wouldn't change places with Marah for the world. All that angst and drama."
"Yeah, you're a real drama-free zone." Grinning at her own wit, Kate dug into the purple pouch on her lap and pulled out a fat white doobie. At Tully's awestruck expression, Kate laughed and lit up. "I have a prescription."
The sweet, strangely old-fashioned scent of marijuana mingled with the tangy sea air. A cloud of smoke darted between them and disappeared.
"You are totally bogarting the joint," Tully said, and they both laughed again. Just that word—bogart—sent them spiraling back to the seventies.
They passed it back and forth and kept talking, giggling. They were so caught up in then that neither of them heard footsteps coming up behind them.
"I turn my back on you girls for ten minutes and you're smoking pot." Mrs. Mularkey stood there, dressed in faded jeans and a sweatshirt from the nineties—maybe even the eighties—her snow-white hair in a lopsided, scrunchied ponytail. "You know that leads to worse things, don't you? Like the crack or LSD."
Tully tried not to laugh; she really did. "Just say no to crack."
"That's a lesson I tried to teach Marah in choosing her pants," Kate said, giggling.
Mrs. M. pulled up another Adirondack chair and positioned it beside Kate. Then she sat down and angled toward her.
For a moment they all sat there, staring at one another while smoke drifted into the air.
"Well?" Mrs. M. finally said. "I taught you to share, didn't I?"
Mrs. M. waved her hand. "You girls from the seventies think you're so cool. Let me tell you, I was around for the sixties, and you've got nothing on me." She took the joint and put it in her mouth, taking a long, deep drag, holding it, and blowing it out. "Hell, Katie, how do you think I got through the teen years when my two girls were sneaking out of the house at night and riding their bikes in the dark?"
"You knew about that?" Tully said.
Kate laughed. "You said it was booze that got you through."
"Oh," Mrs. M. said. "That, too."
At one o'clock in the morning they were in the kitchen raiding the refrigerator when Johnny walked in and noticed the pile of junk food on the counter. "Someone has been smoking pot."
"Don't tell my mom," Kate said.
At that, her mom and Tully burst out laughing.
Kate leaned back in her wheelchair, grinning loopily up at her husband. Cast in the pale and distant light from the hallway, wearing his drugstore bifocals and an old Rolling Stones T-shirt, he looked like a hip professor. "I hope you've come to join the party."
He moved toward her, bent down, and whispered, "How about a private party?"
She put her arms around his neck. "You read my mind."
He scooped her into his arms, said goodnight to everyone, and carried her to their new room. She hung on tightly, her face buried in the crook of his neck, and smelled the last hint of aftershave he'd put on this morning. It was the cheap stuff the kids gave him every Christmas.
In the bathroom, he helped her to the toilet and let himself be her crutch as she brushed her teeth and washed her face. By the time she was dressed for bed, she was exhausted. She hobbled slowly across the room, clutching Johnny's arm. Halfway there, he swept her up again and carried her to bed, tucking her in. "I don't know how I can sleep without you in bed with me," she said.
"I'm right there. Ten feet away. If you need me in the night, just yell."
She touched his face. "I always need you. You know that."
His face crumpled at that; she saw the toll her cancer had taken on him. He looked old. "And I need you." He leaned down and kissed her forehead.
That scared her more than it should have; the forehead kiss was for old people and strangers. She grabbed his hand, said desperately, "I won't break."
Slowly, still looking at her, he kissed her lips, and for a glorious moment, time and tomorrow fell away. It was just them; when he drew back, she felt colder.
If only there was something they could say; words that would ease them over this bumpy road.
"Goodnight, Katie," he said at last, and turned away from her.
"'Night," she whispered back, watching him go to his own bed.
For the next week Kate soaked in the early summer sun; her days were spent huddled under her treasured afghans in a chair by the beach, writing furiously in her journal, or talking with her kids or her husband or Tully. Evenings were taken up by conversation; Lucas and William told the longest, most run-on stories in the world. By the end of them, everyone was laughing. Afterward, the adults sat around the fire. More and more often they talked about the old days, back when they'd been too young to know that they were young, when the whole world had seemed open to them and dreams were as easy to pick as daisies. The funniest part of all was watching Tully try to take over the household duties. She burned dinners, bitched about an island world where no one delivered food to your home, ruined laundry, and repeatedly received instructions about how to operate the vacuum. Kate especially loved it when she heard her friend mutter, "This at-home shit is hard. Why didn't you ever tell me? No wonder you looked tired for fifteen years."
In any other circumstances it would have been the time of Kate's life. For once she was the center of attention.
But no matter how hard they all tried to be normal, their life was a dirty window that couldn't be wiped clean. Everything, every moment, was coated by illness. As always, it fell to Kate to lead the way, to be the smiling, optimistic one. They were all okay as long as she remained strong and resilient. Then they could talk and laugh and carry on the pretense of ordinary life.
It was exhausting, all this propping up of their feelings, but what choice did she have? Sometimes when the burden was too great she upped her pain meds and curled up with Johnny on the couch and simply fell asleep. When she woke up, invariably she was ready to smile again.
Sunday mornings were especially overwhelming. Today, everyone was here—Mom, Dad, Sean and his girlfriend, Tully, Johnny, Marah and the twins. They took turns telling stories so that there was rarely a lull in the conversation.
Kate listened and nodded and smiled and pretended to eat, even though she was nauseous and in pain.
It was Tully who noticed. In the process of passing the quiche Mom had made, she looked up at Kate, said, "You look like shit."
They all agreed.
Kate tried to make a joke, but her mouth was too dry to form words.
Johnny swept her out of her chair and carried her to her room.
When she was back in bed, medicated again, she stared up at her husband.
"How is she?" Tully said, coming into the room, standing beside Johnny.
Kate saw them there, together, shoulder to shoulder, and loved them so much it hurt. As always there was a pinch of jealousy, too, but that was as familiar to her as the beat of her heart.
"I was hoping to feel good enough to go shopping with you," Kate said. "I wanted to help Marah pick out her prom dress. You'll have to do it, Tully." She tried to smile. "Nothing too revealing, okay? And watch out for the shoes. Marah thinks she can wear high heels, but I worry . . ." Kate frowned. "Are you two listening to me?"
Johnny smiled at Tully. "Did you say something?"
Tully put a hand to her chest in a Scarlett O'Hara protestation of innocence. "Me? You know how rarely I talk. People often say I'm too quiet."
Kate maneuvered her bed up to a sit. "What's with the comedy act? I'm trying to tell you something important."
The doorbell rang. "Who could that be?" Tully said. "I'll go check."
Marah poked her head in the room. "They're here. Is she ready?"
"Who is here? Am I ready for what?" No sooner had the words left Kate's mouth than the parade into her room began. First came a man in coveralls, pushing a rolling rack full of floor-length gowns. Next, Marah and Tully and Mom crowded into the small space.
"Okay, Dad," Marah said. "No boys allowed."
Johnny kissed Kate's cheek and left the room.
"The only good thing about being rich and famous," Tully said, "well, there are lots of good things about it, but one of the best is that if you call Nordstrom's and say please send me every prom dress you have in sizes four through six, they do it."
Marah came to the side of the bed. "I couldn't pick out my first prom dress without you, Mom."
Kate didn't know if she wanted to laugh or cry, so she did both.
"Don't worry," Tully said. "I explicitly told the saleswoman to leave the skanky dresses in the store."
At that, they all laughed.
As the weeks passed, Kate felt herself weakening. Despite her best efforts and her purposely optimistic attitude, her body began to fail in a dozen little ways. A word she couldn't find, a sentence she couldn't finish, a trembling weakness in her fingers that wouldn't still, a nausea that all too often became unbearable, and the cold. She was always chilled to the bone.