He sighed and nodded. "We’ll go into the family room."
Mrs. M. stood up slowly.
Tully was struck by how much Mrs. M. had aged. The woman looked frail and a little hunched. She’d stopped dyeing her hair and it was snow-white. "Katie called you?" Mrs. M. said.
"I came right away," she said, as if speed mattered now, after all this time.
Then Mrs. M. did the most amazing thing: she hugged Tully, enveloped her once again in an embrace that smelled of Jean Naté perfume and menthol cigarettes, with just a hint of hairspray to give it spice.
"Come on," Johnny said, breaking up the hug, and leading the way to another room. Inside there was a smallish fake wood conference table and eight molded plastic chairs.
Johnny and Mrs. M. sat down.
Tully remained standing. No one spoke for a moment and every passing second was a turn of the screw. "Tell me."
"Kate has cancer," Johnny said. "It’s called inflammatory breast cancer."
Tully had to concentrate on each breath to remain upright. "She’ll have a mastectomy and get radiation and chemotherapy, right? I have several friends who have fought—"
"She’s already had all of that," he said gently.
"She called you several months ago," he said, and this time his voice had an edge she’d never heard before. "She wanted to have you at the hospital with her. You didn’t return her call."
Tully remembered the message, word for word. I can’t believe you haven’t called to apologize to me. Tully? Are you listening to this? Tully? And the click. Had something happened to the rest of the message? Had the power gone out or the tape hit its end?
"She didn’t say anything about being sick," Tully said.
"She called," Mrs. M. said.
Tully felt tackled by guilt, overcome. She should have sensed something was wrong. Why hadn’t she just picked up the phone? Now all that time had been lost. "Oh, my God. I should have—"
"None of that matters now," Mrs. M. said.
Johnny nodded and went on. "The cancer has metastasized. Last night she had a minor stroke. They got her into the OR as quickly as possible, but once they were inside, they saw there was nothing they could do." His voice broke.
Mrs. M. laid her hand on his. "The cancer is in her brain now."
Tully thought she had known fear before—like on that Seattle street when she was ten years old, or when Katie had had her miscarriage, or when Johnny had been hurt in Iraq—but nothing had felt like this. "Are you saying . . ."
"She’s dying," Mrs. M. said quietly.
Tully shook her head, unable to think of what to say. "W-where is she?" The question came out sounding choppy and broken. "I need to see her."
A look passed between Johnny and Mrs. M.
"What?" Tully said.
"They’re only allowing one person in at a time," Mrs. M. said. "Bud is in there now. I’ll go get him."
As soon as Mrs. M. left, Johnny moved even closer, said, "She’s fragile right now, Tul. Her faculties have been impacted by the cancer in her brain. She has good moments . . . and not-so-good moments."
"What are you saying?" Tully asked.
"She might not know who you are."
The walk to Kate’s room was the longest journey of Tully’s life. She felt people all around her, talking quietly among themselves, but never had she felt more alone. Johnny led her to a doorway and stopped there.
Tully nodded, trying to gather strength as she walked into the room.
Closing the door behind her, she reached for a smile, found one that was the best she could do under the circumstances, and went toward the bed, where her friend lay sleeping.
Angled up to a near-sit, Kate looked like a broken doll against the stark white sheets and piled pillows. She had no hair or eyebrows left, and her bald head was a pale oval that nearly disappeared against the pillowcase.
"Kate?" Tully said quietly, moving forward. The moment she heard her voice she winced. It sounded too loud in this room, too alive somehow.
Kate opened her eyes, and there was the woman Tully knew, the girl she’d sworn to be best friends with forever.
Put your arms out, Katie. It’s like flying.
How had it happened, after all their decades together, that they were estranged now? "I’m sorry, Katie," she whispered, hearing how small the words were; all her life she’d hoarded those few and simple words, kept them tucked inside her heart as if to let them out would harm her. Why, of all the lessons she should have learned from her mother, had she held on to this most hurtful one? And why hadn’t she called when she’d heard Kate’s voice on the answering machine?
"I’m so sorry," she said again, feeling the burn of tears.
Kate didn’t smile or give any indication of welcome or surprise. Even the apology—as little and late as it was—seemed to have no effect. "Please say you remember me."
Kate just stared up at her.
Tully reached down, let her knuckles graze Kate’s warm cheek. "It’s Tully, the bitch who used to be your best friend. I’m so sorry for what I did to you, Katie. I should have told you that a long time ago." She made a tiny, desperate sound. If Kate didn’t remember her, remember them, she didn’t think she could bear it. "I remember when I first met you, Katie Mularkey Ryan. You were the first person who ever really wanted to know me. Naturally I treated you like shit at first, but when I got raped you were there for me." The memories overtook her. She wiped her eyes. "You’re thinking I’m only talking about me, right? Typical, you say. But I remember you, too, Katie; every second. Like when you read Love Story and couldn’t figure out what sonovabitch meant because it wasn’t in the dictionary . . . or when you swore you’d never French-kiss because it was gross-o-rama." Tully shook her head, fighting to keep it together. Her whole life was in the room with them now. "We were so damned young, Katie. But we’re not young anymore. You remember that first time I left Snohomish, and we wrote about a million letters? We signed them Forever friends . . . or Best friends forever. Which was it . . ."
Tully spun out the story of their years; sometimes she even laughed, like when she told about riding their bikes down Summer Hill or running from the cops on the night they got busted. "Oh, here’s one you’ll know. Remember when we went to Pete’s Dragon because we thought it was an action movie, only it was a cartoon? We were the oldest kids in the theater, and we came out singing ‘You and Me Against the World,’ and we said it would always be that way—"
Tully drew in a sharp breath.
There were tears in her friend’s eyes, and more streaking down her temples. They’d formed a small gray patch of wetness on the pillow behind her head. "Tully," Kate said in a soft, swollen voice, "did you really think I could forget you?"
Tully’s relief was so huge she felt weak in the knees. "Hey," she said. "You didn’t have to go so far to get my attention, you know." She touched her friend’s bald head, let her fingers linger on the baby-soft skin. "You could have just called."
"I did call."
Tully flinched. "I’m so sorry, Katie. I—"
"You’re a bitch," Kate said, smiling tiredly. "I’ve always known that. And I could have called back, too. I guess no one stays friends for more than thirty years without a few broken hearts along the way."
"I am a bitch," Tully said miserably, her eyes welling up. "I should have called. It was just . . ." She didn’t even know what to say, how to explain this dark rip that had always been inside of her.
"No looking back, okay?"
"That only leaves ahead," Tully said, and the words were like bits of broken metal, sharp and cold.
"No," Kate said. "It leaves now."
"I did a show on breast cancer a few months ago. There’s a doctor in Ontario doing amazing things with some new drug. I’ll call him."
"I’m done with treatments. I’ve had them all and none has worked. Just . . . be with me."
Tully took a step back. "I’m here to watch you die. Is that what you’re telling me? Because I say no f**king way to that. I won’t do it."
Kate looked up at her, smiling just a little. "That’s all there is, Tully."
"Do you really think Johnny just gave up on me? You know my husband. He’s just like you and we’re almost as rich. For six months I saw every specialist on the planet. I did conventional and unconventional and naturopathic remedies. I even went to that faith healer in the rain forest. I have kids; I did everything I could to stay healthy for them. None of it worked."
"So what do I do?"
Kate’s smile was almost like the old days. "That’s my Tul. I’m dying of cancer and you ask about you." She laughed.
"That’s not funny."
"I don’t know how to do this."
Tully wiped her eyes. The truth of what they were really talking about pressed in on her. "We’ll do it like we’ve done everything else, Kate. Side by side."
Tully came out of Kate’s room shaken. She made a small sound, a kind of gasp, and covered her mouth with her hand.
"You can’t hold it in," Mrs. M. said, coming up to her.
"I can’t let it out."
"I know." Mrs. M’s voice cracked, stumbled. "Just love her. Be there for her. That’s all there is. Believe me, I’ve cried and argued and bargained with God, I’ve begged the doctors for hope. All that’s past now. She’s most worried about the kids. Marah especially. They’ve had such a rough go of it—well, you know about that—and Marah seems to have shut down for all of this. No tears, no drama. All she does is listen to music."
They walked back out to the waiting room, only to find everyone gone.
Mrs. M. looked at her watch. "They’re in the cafeteria. You want to join us?"
"No, thanks. I think I need some fresh air."
Mrs. M. nodded. "It’s good to have you back, Tully. I missed you."
"I should have taken your advice and called her."
"You’re here now. That’s what matters." She patted Tully’s arm and walked away.
Tully went outside, surprised to find that it was light out here, warm and sunny. It seemed vaguely wrong that the sun was still shining while Kate lay up in that narrow bed, dying. She walked down the street, her watery eyes hidden behind huge, dark sunglasses so that no one would recognize her. The last thing she wanted now was to be stopped.
She passed a coffee shop, heard a bit of music waft through the door as someone came out. Bye, bye, Miss American Pie.
Her legs gave out on her, and she went down, hard, scraping her knees on the concrete sidewalk, but she didn’t notice, hardly cared, she was crying so hard. She’d never felt so swollen with emotion; it was as if she couldn’t handle it all. Fear. Sorrow. Guilt. Regret.
"Why didn’t I call her?" she whispered. "I’m so sorry, Katie," she said, hearing the hollow desperation in her voice, feeling sick that now the words came so easily, when it was too late to matter.
She didn’t know how long she knelt there, her head bowed, sobbing, thinking of all their times together. It was a bad part of Capitol Hill, full of homeless people, so no one stopped to help her. Finally, feeling spent and shaky, she climbed back to a standing position and stood there, feeling as if she’d been beaten up. The music took her back in time, reminded her of so many shared moments. Swear we’ll always be best friends.