When she couldn’t stand it anymore—couldn’t stand the oppressive silence of this place without Tully’s easy laughter and endless talking—she left the condo and went down to the ferry terminal. Boarding the next boat, she took a seat in one of the booths and pulled out the iPod. She put the tiny buds in her ears and hit play. Elton John sang to her. Goodbye … yellow brick ro … ad …
She turned her head and stared out at the black Sound, watching the tiny golden lights of Bainbridge Island appear. When the ferry docked, she put the iPod back in the box and walked out to the terminal, where she caught a bus and rode it out to the turnoff to her road.
She saw her house for the first time in more than a year, and the sight of it stopped her in her tracks. The cedar shingles, stained the color of homemade caramel, looked dark on this cool night; the snow-white trim practically glowed in the golden light that shone from within.
On the porch, she paused, expecting for just a second to hear her mother’s voice. Hey, baby girl, how was your day?
She opened the door and went inside. The house welcomed her in the way it had since she’d first come home from kindergarten, with light and sound and comfortable, overstuffed furniture. Before she could even think of what to say, she heard a door whack open upstairs.
“She’s here! Move it or lose it, Skywalker!”
Her brothers careened out of their upstairs bedroom and came thundering down the stairs in tandem. They were both dressed in football sweats and wore identical skater-boy haircuts and had silver braces on their teeth. Wills’s face was ruddy and clear and showed the first sprouts of a mustache. Lucas’s face was red with acne.
They pushed each other out of the way and came together to pick her up. They laughed at her feeble efforts to get free. When she’d last seen them they’d been boys; now they were almost twelve, but they hugged her with the fierceness of little boys who’d missed their big sister. And she had missed them, too. She hadn’t known how much until right now.
“Where’s Paxton?” Wills asked when they finally let her go.
“Gone,” she said quietly. “It’s just me.”
“Excellent,” Wills said in his best stoner-boy voice, nodding his mop of hair. “That kid was a douchebag.”
Marah couldn’t help laughing at that.
“We missed you, Mar,” Lucas said earnestly. “It was a boner move to run away.”
She pulled them into another hug, this one so tight they squealed and wiggled free.
“How’s Tully?” Lucas said when he drew back. “Did you see her? Dad says we can go tomorrow. She’ll be awake by then, right?”
Marah’s mouth went dry. She didn’t know what to say, so she gave a little smile and a shrug. “Sure. Yeah.”
“Cool,” Wills said.
Within moments they were thundering up the stairs again, calling dibs on something.
Marah picked up the shopping bag and climbed the stairs to her old room, opening the door slowly.
Inside, nothing had changed. Her camp pictures were still on the dresser, her yearbooks were stacked alongside her Harry Potter books. She tossed the bag on the bed and walked over to her desk. She wasn’t surprised to find that her hands were shaking as she picked up her old, tattered, often-read copy of The Hobbit. The book Mom had given her so many years ago.
I don’t think you’re quite ready for The Hobbit yet, but someday soon, maybe in a few years, something will happen to hurt your feelings again. Maybe you’ll feel alone with your sadness, not ready to share it with me or Daddy, and if that happens, you’ll remember this book in your nightstand. You can read it then, let it take you away. It sounds silly, but it really helped me when I was thirteen.
“I love you, Mommy,” Marah had said, and her mom had laughed and said, “I just hope you remember that when you’re a teenager.”
But Marah had forgotten. How?
She traced the embossed gold lettering with her fingertips. Maybe you’ll feel alone with your sadness.
Marah felt a surge of loss so keen it brought tears to her eyes and thought: She knew me.
I am back in my make-believe world, my once-upon-a-time world, with my best friend beside me. I can’t picture where exactly, but I am lying in grass, staring up at a starlit sky. I hear strains of a song. I think it’s Pat Benatar, reminding me that love is a battlefield. I don’t know how it’s possible, all this coming and going, but theology was never my strong suit. Pretty much everything I know about religion comes from Jesus Christ Superstar.
My pain is gone; the memory of it remains, though, like a remembered melody, distant, quiet, but there, in the back of your mind.
“Katie, how can it be raining?”
I feel drops, soft as the brush of a butterfly wing against my cheek, and for no reason that makes sense, I feel sad. This world around me—as strange as it is—made sense before. Now something is changing and I don’t like it. I don’t feel safe anymore. Something essential and important is wrong.
It’s not raining.
Her voice has a gentleness I haven’t heard before. Another change.
It’s your mother. She’s crying. Look.
Were my eyes closed?
I open them slowly. The blackness fades unevenly; images drizzle down, drawing light into them. Tiny grains of darkness are drawn together like metal shavings and form themselves into shapes. Light appears suddenly, and I see where I am.
The hospital room. Of course. I’m always here; it is the other places that are mirages. This is real. I can see my banged-up body in the bed; my chest rises and falls in time to the bedside machine that makes a whiz-thunk sound at every exhalation. A graph shows the mountainous green line that is my heartbeat. Up and down, up and down.
My mother is beside the bed. She is smaller than I remember, thinner, and her shoulders sag as if she has spent a lifetime carrying a heavy burden. She is still dressed for another era—that time of Flower Power and Maui Wowie and Woodstock. She is wearing white socks and Birkenstock sandals. But none of that is what matters.
She is crying. For me.
I don’t know how to believe in her, but I don’t know how to let go, either. She’s my mother. After all of it, all the times she’s held on to me and all the times she’s let me go, she’s still woven through me, a part of the fabric of my soul, and it means something, that she’s here.
I feel myself straining forward, listening for her voice. It seems loud in the quiet of this room. I can tell that it is the middle of the night. Beyond the windows, it is jet-black outside.
“I’ve never seen you in pain,” she says to my body. Her voice is almost a whisper. “I never saw you fall down the stairs or scrape your knee or fall off a bike.” Tears are falling from her eyes.
“I’ll tell you everything. How I became Cloud, how I tried to be good enough for you and failed. How I survived all those bad years. I’ll tell you everything you want to know, but I can’t do any of it if you don’t wake up.” She leans over the bed, looks down at me.
“I’m so proud of you,” my mother says. “I never told you that, did I?”
She doesn’t wipe her tears away. They fall onto my face. Leaning closer, she is almost close enough to kiss my cheek. A thing I can’t ever remember her doing. “I love you, Tully.” On this, her voice breaks. “Maybe you don’t care, and maybe I’m too late, but I love you.”
I have waited my whole life to hear those words from my mother.
I turn to Kate, see her glowing face and her beautiful green eyes. In them, I see my whole life. Everything I’ve ever been, and ever wanted to be. That’s what your best friend is: a mirror.
It’s time, she says, and I understand at last. I have been coasting with Kate, drifting lazily down the river of my life with her beside me, but there are rapids up ahead.
I have to make a choice, but first I have to remember. I know instinctively that it will hurt.
“Will you stay with me?”
Forever, if I could.
It is time, at last, to face why my body is here, broken and hooked up to machines in this white, white room.
“Okay, then,” I say, gathering my courage. “It starts with Marah. How long ago did she come to visit me? A week? Ten days? I don’t know. It’s late August of 2010, well after my mother’s so-called intervention, and honestly, time is not my friend. I have been …
trying to write my memoir, but it isn’t working. A headache seems to be my constant companion.
How long has it been since I left my condo? I am ashamed to admit that I can’t do it anymore. I can’t open the door. When I even touch the doorknob, panic washes over me and I start to tremble and shake and hyperventilate. I hate this weakness in me, am ashamed by it, but I can’t make myself overcome it. For the first time in my life, my will is gone. Without it, I have nothing.
Each morning, I make a vow to myself: I will stop taking Xanax and I will leave my home and venture out into the world. I will look for Marah. Or a job. Or a life. I imagine different scenarios in which I go to Bainbridge Island and beg Johnny for forgiveness and receive it.
Today is no different. I wake late in the day and realize instantly that I must have taken too many sleeping pills. I feel terrible. My mouth is tar-pit-sticky and it tastes like I forgot to brush my teeth last night. I roll over in bed, see my bedside clock. I smack my lips together and rub my eyes, which feel gritty and bloodshot. No doubt I cried in my sleep. And again, I have slept the day away.
I get up and try to focus. In my bathroom, I find a mountain of clothes on the floor.
Yeah. Yesterday I tried to go out. I thought it was the outfit stopping me. Makeup lies scattered across the counter.
This is really getting out of control.
Today I will change my life.
I start with a shower. The hot water pounds down on me, but instead of washing away my lethargy, it somehow makes me feel worse. In the steamy enclosure, I relive too much: Johnny’s anger, Kate’s death, Marah’s running away.
The next thing I know, the water is cold. I blink slowly, wondering what the hell has happened to me. Freezing now, shaking, I get out of the shower and dry off.
That will help.
I dress slowly, in sweats I find on the floor of my bedroom. I am shaky and headachy. Eating will help. And one Xanax.
I walk through my dark condo, turning on lights as I go, ignoring the mail scattered on my coffee table. As I am pouring a cup of coffee, my cell phone rings. I answer it quickly. “Yes?”
“Tully? It’s George. I’ve gotten you a ticket to a screening of The American, with George Clooney. I’ll e-mail you the details. It’s a charitable event at a theater in downtown Seattle. The network guys will be there. This is your chance to wow them. September second. Eight P.M. Don’t be late, and look good.”
“Thanks, George,” I say, smiling for the first time in days.
I feel hope stir inside of me. I need this so much. I’m cried out, as dry as sawdust. I can’t live this way anymore.
Then it hits me: I have to leave my condo and go out in public. I start to panic, try to tamp it down.