Tully frowned, feeling a new kind of shame in the pit of her stomach. She thought she looked pretty in this dress. And she didn’t want to be the president. She wanted to be a ballerina.
Mostly, though, she wanted her mommy to love her. She edged sideways until she was actually close enough to her mother to touch her. "Happy birthday," she said quietly, reaching into her pocket. She pulled out the necklace she’d worked so hard on, agonized over, really, still gluing glitter on long after the other kids had gone out to play. "I made this for you."
Mom snagged the necklace and closed her fingers around it. Tully waited and waited for her mom to say thank you and put the necklace on, but she didn’t; she just sat there, swaying to the music, talking to her friends.
Tully finally closed her eyes. The smoke was making her sleepy. For most of her life she’d missed her mommy, and not like you missed a toy you couldn’t find or a friend who stopped coming over to play because you wouldn’t share. She missed her mommy. It was always inside her, an empty space that ached in the daytime and turned into a sharp pain at night. She’d promised herself that if her mommy ever came back, she’d be good. Perfect. Whatever she’d done or said that was so wrong, she’d fix or change. More than anything she wanted to make her mommy proud.
But now she didn’t know what to do. In her dreams, they’d always gone off together alone, just the two of them, holding hands.
"Here we are," her dream mommy always said as they walked up the hill to their house. "Home sweet home." Then she’d kiss Tully’s cheek and whisper, "I missed you so much. I was gone because—"
"Tallulah. Wake up."
Tully came awake with a jolt. Her head was pounding and her throat hurt. When she tried to say, Where are we? all that came out was a croak.
Everyone laughed at that and kept laughing as they bundled out of the van.
On this busy downtown Seattle street, there were people everywhere, chanting and yelling and holding up signs that read MAKE LOVE NOT WAR, and HELL NO, WE WON’T GO. Tully had never seen so many people in one place.
Mommy took hold of her hand, pulled her close.
The rest of the day was a blur of people chanting slogans and singing songs. Tully spent every moment terrified that she’d somehow let go of her mother’s hand and be swept away by the crowd. She didn’t feel any safer when the policemen showed up because they had guns on their belts and sticks in their hands and plastic shields that protected their faces.
But all the crowd did was march and all the police did was watch.
By the time it got dark, she was tired and hungry and her head ached, but they just kept walking, up one street and down another. The crowd was different now; they’d put away their signs and started drinking. Sometimes she heard whole sentences or pieces of conversation, but none of it made sense.
"Did you see those pigs? They were dyin’ to knock our teeth out, but we were peaceful, man. Couldn’t touch us. Hey, Dot, you’re bogarting the joint."
Everyone around them laughed, Mommy most of all. Tully couldn’t figure out what was going on and she had a terrible headache. People swelled around them, dancing and laughing. From somewhere, music spilled into the street.
And then, suddenly, she was holding on to nothing.
"Mommy!" she screamed.
No one answered or turned to her, even though there were people everywhere. She pushed through the bodies, screaming for her mommy until her voice failed her. Finally, she went back to where she’d last seen her mommy and waited at the curb.
She’ll be back.
Tears stung her eyes and leaked down her face as she sat there waiting, trying to be brave.
But her mommy never came back.
For years afterward, she tried to remember what had happened next, what she did, but all those people were like a cloud that obscured her memories. All she ever remembered was waking up on a dirty cement stoop along a street that was totally empty, seeing a policeman on horseback.
From his perch high above her, he frowned down at her and said, "Hey, little one, are you all alone?"
"I am," was all she could say without crying.
He took her back to the house on Queen Anne Hill, where her grandma held her tightly and kissed her cheek and told her it wasn’t her fault.
But Tully knew better. Somehow today she’d done something wrong, been bad. Next time her mommy came back, she’d try harder. She’d promise to be the president and she’d never, ever say she was sorry again.
Tully got a chart of the presidents of the United States and memorized every name in order. For months afterward, she told anyone who asked that she would be the first woman president; she even quit taking ballet classes. On her eleventh birthday, while Grandma lit the candles on her cake and sang a thin, watery version of "Happy Birthday," Tully glanced repeatedly at the door, thinking, This is it, but no one ever knocked and the phone didn’t ring. Later, with the opened boxes of her gifts around her, she tried to keep smiling. In front of her, on the coffee table, was an empty scrapbook. As a present, it sort of sucked, but her grandma always gave her stuff like this—projects to keep her busy and quiet.
"She didn’t even call," Tully said, looking up.
Gran sighed tiredly. "Your mom has . . . problems, Tully. She’s weak and confused. You’ve got to quit pretending things are different. What matters is that you’re strong."
She’d heard this advice a bazillion times. "I know."
Gran sat down on the worn floral sofa beside Tully and pulled her onto her lap.
Tully loved it when Gran held her. She snuggled in close, rested her cheek on Gran’s soft chest.
"I wish things were different with your mama, Tully, and that’s the God’s honest truth, but she’s a lost soul. Has been for a long time."
"Is that why she doesn’t love me?"
Gran looked down at her. The black horn-rimmed glasses magnified her pale gray eyes. "She loves you, in her way. That’s why she keeps coming back."
"It doesn’t feel like love."
"I don’t think she even likes me."
"It’s me she doesn’t like. Something happened a long time ago and I didn’t . . . Well, it doesn’t matter now." Gran tightened her hold on Tully. "Someday she’ll be sorry she missed these years with you. I’m certain of that."
"I could show her my scrapbook."
Gran didn’t look at her. "That would be nice." After a long silence, she said, "Happy birthday, Tully," and kissed her forehead. "Now I’d best go sit with your grandfather. He’s feeling poorly today."
After her grandmother left the room, Tully sat there, staring down at the blank first page of her new scrapbook. It would be the perfect thing to give her mother one day, to show her what she’d missed. But how would Tully fill it? She had a few photographs of herself, taken mostly by her friends’ moms at parties and on field trips, but not many. Her gran’s eyes weren’t good enough for those tiny viewfinders. And she had only the one picture of her mom.
She picked up a pen and very carefully wrote the date in the upper right-hand corner; then she frowned. What else? Dear Mommy. Today was my eleventh birthday . . .
After that day, she collected artifacts from her life. School pictures, sports pictures, movie ticket stubs. For years whenever she had a good day, she hurried home and wrote about it, pasting down whatever receipt or ticket proved where she had been or what she’d done. Somewhere along the way she started adding little embellishments to make herself look better. They weren’t lies, really, just exaggerations. Anything that would make her mom someday say she was proud of her. She filled that scrapbook and then another and another. On every birthday, she received a brand-new book, until she moved into the teen years.
Something happened to her then. She wasn’t sure what it was, maybe the br**sts that grew faster than anyone else’s, or maybe it was just that she got tired of putting her life down on pieces of paper no one ever asked to see. By fourteen, she was done. She put all her little-girl books in a big cardboard box and shoved them to the back of her closet, and she asked Gran not to buy her any more.
"Are you sure, honey?"
"Yeah," had been her answer. She didn’t care about her mother anymore and tried never to think about her. In fact, at school, she told everyone that her mom had died in a boating accident.
The lie freed her. She quit buying her clothes in the little-girls departments and spent her time in the juniors area. She bought tight, midriff-baring shirts that showed off her new boobs and low-rise bell-bottoms that made her butt look good. She had to hide these clothes from Gran, but it was easy to do; a puffy down vest and a quick wave could get her out of the house in whatever she wanted to wear.
She learned that if she dressed carefully and acted a certain way, the cool kids wanted to hang out with her. On Friday and Saturday nights, she told Gran she was staying at a friend’s house and went roller-skating at Lake Hills, where no one ever asked about her family or looked at her as if she were "poor Tully." She learned to smoke cigarettes without coughing and to chew gum to camouflage the smell on her breath.
By eighth grade, she was one of the most popular girl in junior high, and it helped, having all those friends. When she was busy enough, she didn’t think about the woman who didn’t want her.
On rare days she still felt . . . not quite lonely . . . but something. Adrift, maybe. As if all the people she hung around with were placeholders.
Today was one of those days. She sat in her regular seat on the school bus, hearing the buzz of gossip go on around her. Everyone seemed to be talking about family things; she had nothing to add to the conversations. She knew nothing about fighting with your little brother or being grounded for talking back to your parents or going to the mall with your mom. Thankfully, when the bus pulled up to her stop, she hurried off, making a big show of saying goodbye to her friends, laughing loudly and waving. Pretending; she did a lot of that lately.
After the bus drove away, she repositioned her backpack over her shoulder and started the long walk home. She had just turned the corner when she saw it.
There, parked across the street, in front of Gran’s house, was a beat-up red VW bus. The flower decals were still on the side.
It was still dark when Kate Mularkey’s alarm clock rang. She groaned and lay there, staring up at the peaked ceiling. The thought of going to school made her sick.
Eighth grade blew chips as far as she was concerned; 1974 had turned out to be a totally sucky year, a social desert. Thank God there was only a month left of school. Not that the summer promised to be any better.
In sixth grade she’d had two best friends; they’d done everything together—showed their horses in 4-H, gone to youth group, and ridden their bikes from one house to the next. The summer they turned twelve, all that ended. Her friends went wild; there was no other way to put it. They smoked pot before school and skipped classes and never missed a party. When she wouldn’t join in, they cut her loose. Period. And the "good" kids wouldn’t come near her because she’d been part of the stoners’ club. So now books were her only friends. She’d read Lord of the Rings so often she could recite whole scenes by memory.
It was not a skill that aided one in becoming popular.
With a sigh, she got out of bed. In the tiny upstairs closet that had recently been turned into a bathroom, she took a quick shower and braided her straight blond hair, then put on her spazo horn-rimmed glasses. They were hopelessly out of date now—round and rimless were what the cool kids wore—but her dad said they couldn’t afford new glasses yet.