Here it comes. "Yes, ma'am."
"She's been praying for your mother to recover from her cancer. She even has a little altar set up in her room."
Tully looked at the floor, too ashamed to answer. How could she explain why she'd lied? No answer would be good enough, not for a mother like Mrs. Mularkey, who loved her kids. At that, a wave of jealousy joined the shame running through her. Maybe if Tully had had a mother who loved her she wouldn't find it so easy—so necessary—to lie in the first place. And now she'd lose the one thing that mattered to her: Katie.
"Do you think lying to your friends is okay?"
"No, ma'am." So intently was she staring at the floor that she was startled by a gentle touch on her chin that forced her to look up.
"Are you going to be a good friend to Kate? Or the kind that leads her to trouble?"
"I'd never hurt Katie." Tully wanted to say more, maybe fall to her knees and swear to be a good person, but she was so close to tears she didn't dare move. She stared into Mrs. Mularkey's dark eyes and saw something she never expected: understanding.
In the living room, Cloud stumbled over to the television and changed the channel. Tully could see the screen through the rubble of the messy room: Jean Enersen was reporting on the day's top story.
"You do it, don't you?" Mrs. Mularkey said quietly, as if she worried that Cloud might be eavesdropping. "Pay the bills, grocery-shop, clean the house. Who pays for everything?"
Tully swallowed hard. No one had ever seen through her life so clearly before. "My grandmother sends a check every week."
"My dad was a fall-down drunk and the whole town knew it," Mrs. Mularkey said in a soft voice that matched the look in her eyes. "He was mean, too. Friday and Saturday nights, my sister, Georgia, would have to go to the tavern and drag him home. All the way out of the bar he'd be smacking her and calling her names. She was like one of those rodeo clowns, always stepping between the bull and the cowboy. By the end of my junior year I figured out why she ran with the fast crowd and drank too much."
"She didn't want people to look at her like she was pitiful."
Mrs. Mularkey nodded. "She hated that look. What matters, though, isn't other people. That's what I learned. Who your mom is and how she lives her life isn't a reflection of you. You can make your own choices. And there's nothing for you to be ashamed of. But you'll have to dream big, Tully." She glanced through the open door to the living room. "Like that Jean Enersen on the TV there. A woman who gets to a place like that in her life knows how to go after what she wants."
"How do I know what I want?"
"You keep your eyes open and do the right thing. Go to college. And trust your friends."
"I do trust Kate."
"So you'll tell her the truth?"
"What if I just promise—"
"One of us is going to tell her, Tully. It should be you."
Tully took a deep breath and released it. Though telling the truth went against every instinct she had, she had no choice, really. She wanted Mrs. Mularkey to be proud of her. "Okay."
"Good. So I'll see you for dinner tomorrow night. Five o'clock. It'll be your chance to start over."
The next night, Tully changed her clothes at least four times, trying to find exactly the right outfit. By the time she was actually ready, she was so late that she had to run all the way across the street and up the hill.
Kate's mom opened the door. She wore a pair of purple gabardine bell-bottoms and a striped V-neck sweater with angel sleeves. Smiling, she said, "I warn you, it's loud and crazy in here."
"I love loud and crazy," Tully said.
"Then you'll fit right in." Mrs. Mularkey put an arm around Tully's shoulder and led her toward the beige-walled living room with its moss-green shag carpeting, bright red sofa, and black recliner. A small gold-framed photo of Jesus and another of Elvis were the only decorations on the walls, but dozens of family pictures cluttered the top of the console TV. Tully couldn't help thinking of the TV in her house; its top was covered with overflowing ashtrays and empty cigarette packs, but no family photos.
"Bud?" Mrs. Mularkey said to the beefy, dark-haired man sitting in the recliner. "This is Tully Hart from next door."
Mr. Mularkey smiled at her and put down his drink. "Well, well. So you're the one we've been hearin' about. It's nice to have you here, Tully."
"It's nice to be here."
Mrs. Mularkey patted her shoulder. "Dinner's not till six. Katie's upstairs in her room. It's the one at the very top of the stairs. I'm sure you girls have plenty to talk about."
Tully got the message and nodded, unable to rouse her voice. Now that she was here, in this warm house that smelled of home-cooked meals, standing shoulder to shoulder with the world's most perfect mom, she couldn't imagine losing it all, becoming unwelcome. "I'll never lie to her again," she promised.
"Good. Now go." With a last smile, Mrs. Mularkey walked into the living room.
Mr. Mularkey put an arm around his wife and drew her into the La-Z-Boy with him. Immediately they bent their heads together.
Tully felt a longing so sharp and unexpected, she couldn't move. Everything would have been different for her if she'd had a family like this. She didn't want to turn away from it just yet. "Are you watching the news?"
Mr. Mularkey looked up. "We never miss it."
Mrs. Mularkey smiled. "Jean Enersen is changing the world. She's one of the first women to anchor a nightly news program."
"I'm going to be a reporter," Tully said suddenly.
"That's wonderful," Mr. Mularkey said.
"There you are," Kate said suddenly, coming up beside her. "Nice of everyone to tell me you were here," she said loudly.
"I was just telling your mom and dad that I'm going to be a news reporter," Tully said.
Mrs. Mularkey beamed at that. In her smile, Tully saw everything that had been missing in her life. "Isn't that a grand dream, Katie?"
Kate looked confused for a moment. Then she hooked her arm through Tully's and pulled her away from the living room and up the stairs. In her small attic bedroom, Kate went to the record player and flipped through a small stack of records. By the time she'd chosen one—Carole King's Tapestry—and put it on, Tully was at the window, staring out at the lavender evening.
The surge of adrenaline she'd gotten from her announcement faded, leaving a quiet kind of sadness behind. She knew what she had to do now, but the thought of it made her sick.
Tell her the truth.
If you don't, Mrs. Mularkey will.
"I got the new Seventeen and Tiger Beat," Kate said, stretching out on the blue shag carpeting. "You want to read 'em? We can take the 'Can You Be Tony DeFranco's Girlfriend?' quiz."
Tully lay down beside her. "Sure."
"Jan-Michael Vincent is so foxy," Kate said, flipping to a picture of the actor.
"I heard he lied to his girlfriend," Tully said, daring a sideways glance.
"I hate liars." Kate turned the page. "Are you really going to be a news reporter? You never told me that."
"Yeah," Tully said, really imagining it for the first time. Maybe she could be famous. Then everyone would admire her. "You'll have to be one, too, though. 'Cause we do everything together."
"We'll be a team like Woodward and Bernstein, only with better clothes. And prettier."
"I don't know—"
Tully bumped her. "Yes, you do. Mrs. Ramsdale told the whole class that you're an excellent writer."
Kate laughed. "That's true. Okay. I'll be a reporter, too."
"When we get famous, we'll tell Mike Wallace we couldn't have done it without each other."
After that, they fell silent, flipping through the magazines. Tully tried twice to bring up the subject of her mother, but both times Kate interrupted her, and then someone was yelling, "Dinner," and her chance for coming clean had slipped away.
All through the best meal of her life, she felt the weight of her lie. By the time they'd cleared the table and washed and dried the dishes, she was stretched to the breaking point. Even dreaming about fame on television couldn't ease her nerves.
"Hey, Mom," Kate said, putting away the last white CorningWare plate, "Tully and me are going to ride our bikes down to the park, okay?"
"Tully and I," her mother answered, reaching down into the magazine pouch of the La-Z-Boy's arm for the TV guide. "And be back by eight."
"Eight," her father said from the living room.
Kate looked at Tully. "They treat me like I'm a baby."
"You don't know how lucky you are. Come on, let's get our bikes."
They rode at a breakneck speed down the bumpy county road, laughing all the way. At Summer Hill, Tully flung her arms out and Kate followed.
When they got to the river park, they ditched their bikes in the trees and lay on the grass, side by side, staring up at the sky, listening to the river gurgling against the rocks.
"I have something to tell you," Tully said in a rush.
"My mom doesn't have cancer. She's a pothead."
"Your mom smokes dope. Yeah, right."
"It's true. She's always high."
Kate turned to her. "Really?"
"You lied to me?"
Tully could barely maintain eye contact, she was so ashamed. "I didn't mean to."
"People don't lie accidentally. It's not like tripping over a crack in the sidewalk."
"You don't know how it feels to be embarrassed by your mom."
"Are you kidding? You should have seen what my mom wore out to dinner last—"
"No," Tully said. "You don't know."
Tully knew what Kate was asking of her; she wanted the truth that had spawned the lie, but Tully didn't know if she could do it, turn all her pain into words and pass them out like cards. All her life she'd kept these secrets close. If she told Kate the reality and then lost her as a friend, it would be unbearable.
Then again, if she didn't tell the truth, she'd lose the friendship for sure.
"I was two years old," she finally said, "when my mom first dumped me at my grandparents' house. She went to town for milk and came back when I was four. When I was ten, she showed up again and I thought it meant she loved me. That time she let go of me in a crowd. The next time I saw her I was fourteen. My gran's letting us live in this house and sending us money every week. That'll last until my mom bails again—which she will do."
"I don't understand."
"Of course you don't. My mom isn't like yours. This is the longest amount of time I've ever spent with her. Sooner or later she'll get bored and move on without me."
"How can a mother do that?"
Tully shrugged. "I think there's something wrong with me."
"There's nothing wrong with you. She's the loser. But I still don't get why you lied to me."
Tully finally looked at her. "I wanted you to like me."