Mom smoothed the hair off Kate's forehead in a touch that was as familiar as breathing. Kate always felt five years old when her mom did that. "I'm sorry you thought I was judging your friend."
"You should be."
"And you're sorry for being so mean to me, right?"
Kate couldn't help smiling. "Yeah."
"I'll tell you what: Why don't you invite Tully over for dinner Friday night?"
"You'll love her. I know you will."
"I'm sure I will," Mom said, kissing her forehead. "'Night."
Long after her mother had left and the house had gone quiet for the night, Kate lay there, too wound up to sleep. She couldn't wait to invite Tully for dinner. Afterward, they could watch I Dream of Jeannie, or play Operation, or practice putting on makeup. Maybe Tully would even want to spend the night. They could—
—talk about boys and kissing and—
Kate sat up. That wasn't a bird on the roof or a mouse in the walls.
It was a small rock, hitting the glass!
She threw the covers back and hurried to the window, shoving it open.
Tully was in her backyard, holding a bike beside her. "Come on down," she said, much too loudly, making a hurry gesture with her hand.
"You want me to sneak out?"
Kate had never done anything like this, but she couldn't act like a nerd now. Cool kids broke the rules and sneaked out of the house. Everyone knew that. Everyone knew, too, that trouble could follow. And this was exactly what her mom had been talking about.
You think for yourself around Tully Hart.
Kate didn't care about that. What mattered was Tully.
"I'm on my way." Closing the window, she looked around for clothes. Fortunately, her overalls were in the corner, folded neatly beneath a black sweatshirt. She slipped out of her old Scooby-Doo jammies and dressed quickly, then crept down the hall. As she passed her parents' bedroom, her heart was pounding so fast she felt light-headed. The stairs creaked ominously with every footfall, but finally she made it.
At the back door she paused just long enough to think, I could get in trouble for this, and then she opened the door.
Tully was there, waiting. Beside her was the most amazing bike Kate had ever seen. It had curly handlebars, a tiny kidney-shaped seat on a platform, and a bunch of cables and wires. "Wow," she said. It would take a lot of berry-picking money to get a bike like that.
"It's a ten-speed," Tully said. "My grandma gave it to me last Christmas. You want to ride it?"
"No way." Kate closed the door quietly behind her. In the carport she found her old pink bicycle with the U-shaped handlebars, flowerdecaled banana seat, and white wicker basket. It was hopelessly uncool; a little girl's bike.
Tully didn't even seem to notice. They mounted up and rode down the wet, bumpy driveway to the paved road. There, they veered left and kept going. At Summer Hill, Tully said, "Watch this. Do what I do."
They crested the hill as if they were flying. Kate's hair whipped back from her head; tears stung her eyes. All around them black trees whispered in the breeze. Stars glittered in the velvet black sky.
Tully leaned back and put her arms out. Laughing, she glanced at Kate. "Try it."
"I can't. We're going too fast."
"That's the point."
"Come on. Let go, Katie. God hates a coward." Then, quietly, she added, "Trust me."
Now Kate had no choice. Trust was part of being friends, and Tully wouldn't hang out with a chicken. "Come on," she said to herself, trying to sound stern.
Taking a deep breath, she said a prayer and eased her arms out.
She was flying, sailing through the night sky, down the hill. The air smelled of the riding stable nearby, of horses and sweet hay. She heard Tully laughing beside her, but before she could even smile, something went wrong. Her front tire hit a rock; the bike bucked like a Brahman bull and twisted sideways, catching Tully's tire in its arc.
She screamed, reached for the handlebars, but it was too late. She was in the air, really flying this time. The pavement rushed up, smacked her hard, and she skidded across it, landing in a heap in a muddy ditch.
Tully rolled across the asphalt and slammed into her. The bikes clattered to the ground.
Dazed, Kate stared up at the night sky. Every part of her hurt. Her left ankle might be broken. It felt swollen, tender. She could feel where the road had ripped off her skin in patches.
"That was incredible," Tully said, laughing.
"Are you kidding? We could have been killed."
Kate winced in pain as she tried to get up. "We should get out of this ditch. A car could come along—"
"But wasn't that cool? Wait till we tell the kids about this."
The kids at school. This would be a story, and Kate would be one of the stars in it. People would listen raptly, ooh and aah, say things like, You sneaked out? Summer Hill without hands? It's gotta be a lie . . .
And suddenly Kate was laughing, too.
They helped each other to their feet and retrieved their bikes. By the time they were across the road, Kate barely noticed where she was hurt. She felt like a different girl suddenly—bolder, braver, willing to try anything. So what if trouble followed a night like this? What was a sprained ankle or a bloody knee next to an adventure? For the past two years she'd followed all the rules and stayed home on weekend nights. No more.
They left their bikes by the side of the road and limped toward the river. In the moonlight, everything looked milky and beautiful—the silvery waves, the jagged rocks along the shore.
Tully sat down by a decaying, moss-covered nurse log in a place where the grass was as thick as shag carpeting.
Kate sat down beside her, so close their knees were almost touching. Together they stared up at the star-spangled sky. The song of the river floated toward them, sounded like a young girl's laugh. Just now, with the world so still and silent, it was as if the breeze had drawn in its cool breath and left them all alone in this place that until right now had been just another bend in a river that flooded every autumn.
"I wonder who named our street," Tully said. "I haven't seen any fireflies."
Kate shrugged. "Over by the old bridge is Missouri Street. Maybe some pioneer was homesick. Or lost."
"Or maybe it's magic. This could be a magical street." Tully turned toward her. "That could mean we were meant to be friends."
Kate shivered at the power of that. "Before you moved here, I thought it was just a road that went nowhere."
"Now it's our road."
"We can go all kinds of places when we grow up."
"Places don't matter," Tully said.
Kate heard something in her friend's voice, a sadness she didn't understand. She turned sideways. Tully was staring up at the sky.
"Are you thinking about your mom?" Kate asked tentatively.
"I try not to think about her." There was a long pause, then she dug into her pocket for a Virginia Slims cigarette and lit up.
Kate was careful not to make a face about the smoking.
"You want a drag?"
Kate knew she had no choice. "Uh. Sure."
"If my mom were normal—not sick, I mean—I could have told her about what happened to me at the party."
Kate took a tiny drag, coughed hard, and said, "Do you think about it a lot?"
Tully leaned back against the log, taking the cigarette again. After a long pause, she said, "I have nightmares about it."
Kate wished she knew what to say. "What about your dad? Can you talk to him?"
Tully wouldn't look at her. "I don't think she even knows who he is." Her voice fell. "Or he heard about me and ran."
"Life is harsh. Besides, I don't need them. I've got you, Katie. You're the one that helped me through it."
Kate smiled. The sharp tang of smoke filled the air between them, stung her eyes, but she didn't care. What mattered was being here, with her new best friend. "That's what friends are for."
That next night Tully was on the last chapter of The Outsiders when she heard her mother yelling through the house. "Tully! Answer the damn door."
She slammed the book down and went out into the living room, where her mother sat sprawled on the sofa, taking a bong hit as she watched Happy Days.
"You're right by the door."
Her mother shrugged. "So?"
"Hide your bong."
Sighing dramatically, Cloud leaned over and put her bong beneath the end table beside the couch. Only a blind person would miss it, but that was as good as Cloud was likely to do.
Tully smoothed the hair away from her face and opened the door.
A small, dark-haired woman stood there, holding a foil-covered casserole dish. Electric-blue eye shadow accentuated her brown eyes, and rose-hued blush—applied with too heavy a hand—created the illusion of sharp cheekbones in her round face. "You must be Tully," the woman said in a voice that was higher somehow than expected. It was a girl's voice, full of enthusiasm, and it matched the sparkle in her eyes. "I'm Kate's mom. Sorry to come without calling, but your line has been busy."
Tully pictured the phone by her mother's bed off the hook. "Oh."
"I brought you and your mom a tuna casserole for dinner. I imagine she doesn't feel much like cooking. My sister had cancer a few years ago, so I know the drill." She smiled and stood there. Finally, her smile faded. "Are you going to invite me in?"
Tully froze. This is going to be bad, she thought. "Um . . . sure."
"Thank you." Mrs. Mularkey moved past her and went into the house.
Cloud lay on the sofa, sort of spread-eagled; she had a pile of marijuana on her stomach. Smiling blearily, she tried to sit up and failed. The failure made her shoot out a few swear words and then laugh. The whole house reeked of pot.
Mrs. Mularkey came to a stop. Confusion pleated her forehead. "I'm Margie from next door," she said.
"I'm Cloud," Tully's mother said, trying again to sit up. "It's cool to meet you."
For a terrible, awkward moment, they just stared at each other. Tully had no doubt at all that Mrs. Mularkey's sharp eyes saw everything—the bong under the end table, the bag of Maui-wowie on the floor, the overturned, empty wineglass, and the pizza boxes on the table. "Also, I wanted to let you know that I'm home most days, and I'd be happy to drive you to the doctor's office or run errands. I know how chemo can make you feel."
Cloud frowned blearily. "Who's got cancer?"
Mrs. Mularkey turned to look at Tully, who wanted to curl up and die.
"Tully, show our cool neighbor with the food where the kitchen is."
Tully practically ran for the kitchen. In that pink hell, junk food wrappers covered the table, dirty dishes clogged the sink, and overflowing ashtrays were everywhere; more evidence of her pathetic life for her best friend's mother to see.
Mrs. Mularkey walked past her, bent over the oven, put the casserole onto the rack, then shut the door with her hip and then turned to study Tully. "My Katie is a good girl," she said at last.