The number rings repeatedly and then goes to voice mail. I don’t bother to leave a message. Is it Saturday?
Maybe a nap will help. Mrs. Mularkey used to say that a good night’s sleep could change everything, and I need to be changed. So I go into my room, pull the curtains shut, and crawl into bed. For the next five days, I do almost nothing except eat too much and sleep poorly. Each morning when I wake up, I think this is it, this is the day I will be able to climb out of this grief and be me again, and each night I drink until I can’t remember the sound of my best friend’s voice.
And then it comes to me, on the sixth day after Kate’s funeral. An idea so grand and perfect that I can’t believe I haven’t considered it before.
I need closure. That’s how I will put all this dark sadness away and go on, that’s how I will heal. I need to look this grief in the heart and say goodbye. I need to help Johnny and the kids, too.
Suddenly, I know how to do it.
* * *
It is nightfall when I pull up into the Ryans’ driveway and park. Stars litter the charcoal and purple sky, a faint autumn-scented breeze ruffles the green skirts of the cedar trees that line the property. I struggle to lift the flattened cardboard moving boxes out of my small, sleek Mercedes and carry them across the wild front yard, which is strewn with kids’ toys and overrun with weeds. In the past year, yard work and maintenance have hardly been on anyone’s list.
Inside, the house is dark and quieter than I can ever remember it being.
I come to a stop and think, I can’t do it. What have I been thinking?
And there is more, something else. I remember our last night together, Katie’s and mine. She had made up her mind; we all knew it. The decision had weighed us down, so that we moved more slowly, talked in whispers. We had one last hour alone, just the two of us. I’d wanted to climb into bed with her, to hold her matchstick body close, but even with her pain cocktail, the time for that had passed. Every breath hurt her, and by extension, me, too.
Take care of them, she’d whispered, clutching my hand in hers. I’ve done everything for them. At this she laughed; it was a crinkling, breathy release of air. They won’t know how to start without me. Help them.
And I had said, Who will help me?
The shame of that washes over me, tightens my stomach.
I’ll always be with you, she’d lied, and that had been the end of it. She’d asked for Johnny and the kids then.
And I’d known.
I tighten my hold on the boxes and trudge up the stairs, ignoring the way the cardboard edges bang into the worn, scuffed risers. In Kate and Johnny’s bedroom, I pause, feeling reluctant suddenly to intrude.
What had Johnny said to me the last time we spoke? Every time I look at the clothes in her closet …
I swallow hard and go into their walk-in closet, turning on the light. Johnny’s clothes are on the right side, neatly organized. Kate’s are on the left.
At the sight of her things, I almost lose my nerve; my knees buckle. Unsteady on my feet, I unfold one of the boxes and tape the ends and set it beside me. I grab an armful of hangered clothes and sit down on the cold hardwood floor.
Sweaters. Cardigans and turtlenecks and V-necks. I fold each one carefully, reverently, breathing in the last, lingering scent of her—lavender and citrus.
I do okay until I come to a worn, stretched-out-of-shape gray UW sweatshirt, soft from years of washing.
A memory washes over me: We are in Kate’s bedroom, packing to go off to college together. A couple of eighteen-year-old girls who have imagined this moment for years, talked about it all summer, polished our dream until it is shiny. We are going to join the same sorority and become famous journalists.
They’ll want you, Kate had said quietly. I’d known she was feeling afraid, the unpopular girl her classmates had called Kootie all those years ago.
You know I won’t join a sorority unless we’re in it together, right?
That was what Kate had never understood, or at least hadn’t believed: of the two of us, I needed her more than she needed me.
I fold up the sweatshirt and set it aside. I will take it home with me.
For the rest of that night, I sit in my best friend’s closet, remembering our friendship and boxing up her life. At first I try to be strong, and the trying gives me a terrible headache.
Her clothes are like a scrapbook of our lives.
At last, I come to a jacket that hasn’t been in style since the late eighties. I bought it for her on her birthday, with the first big paycheck I ever earned. There are honest-to-God sparkles on the shoulder pads.
You can’t afford this, she’d said when she pulled the purple double-breasted suit from the box.
I’m on my way.
She’d laughed. Yeah. You. I’m knocked up and getting fat.
You’ll come to New York to see me after the baby is born and you’ll need something totally rad to wear …
I get to my feet. Holding the jacket to my chest, I go downstairs and pour myself another glass of wine. Madonna’s voice comes at me through the living room speakers. As I stop to listen, it occurs to me that I’ve left my lunch dishes on the counter and the takeout boxes from my dinner should really go in the garbage, but how can I think of that when the music is in me again, taking me back?
Vogue. We’d danced to the music in suits just like this one. I go to the CD player and crank the volume so I can hear it upstairs. For just a moment, I close my eyes and dance, holding her jacket, and I imagine her here, hip-bumping me and laughing. Then I go back to work.
* * *
I wake up on the floor of her closet, wearing a pair of her black sweatpants and the old UW sweatshirt. The wineglass beside me has fallen on its side and broken into pieces. The bottle is empty. No wonder I feel terrible.
I struggle to sit up, pushing the hair out of my eyes. It is my second night here, and I am almost done packing Kate’s things away. Her side of the closet is completely empty and there are six boxes stacked beneath the silver rod.
On the floor next to my broken wineglass is Kate’s journal, the one she wrote in the last months of her life.
Marah will come looking for me one day, Kate had said, pressing the journal into my hands. Be with her when she reads it. And my boys … show them these words when they can’t remember me.
The music is still blaring downstairs. I’d drunk too much wine and forgotten to turn it off last night. Prince. Purple Rain.
I get to my feet, feeling weak, but at least I have done something. This will make Johnny’s life easier when he gets back. It is one difficult job he needn’t do.
Downstairs, the music snaps off.
I frown, turn, but before I leave the closet, Johnny appears in the doorway.
“What the fuck?” he yells at me.
I am so taken aback, I just stare at him. Was it today they were returning from Kauai?
He glances past me, sees the boxes lining the wall with labels like Kate’s summer clothes, and Goodwill, and Kate, misc.
I see his pain, how he is struggling for composure as his children come up behind him. I push my way into his embrace, waiting—waiting—for him to hold me. When he doesn’t, I step back. I feel tears burn my eyes. “I knew you wouldn’t want—”
“How dare you come into this house and go through her things and box them up as if they’re garbage?” His voice breaks, words vibrate. “Is that her sweatshirt you’re wearing?”
“I was trying to help.”
“Help? Is it a help to leave empty wine bottles and food cartons on the counter? Is it a help to blast music at the edge of pain? Do you think it will help me to look into her empty closet?”
“Johnny—” I reach for him. He pushes me aside so hard I stumble and almost drop the journal.
“Give me that,” he says in a voice that is trip-wire tight.
I hold it to my chest and back away. “She entrusted it to me. I’m supposed to be with Marah when she reads it. I promised Katie.”
“She made a lot of mistakes when it came to you.”
I shake my head. This is happening so fast I can’t quite process it. “Did I make a mistake in cleaning out her closet? I thought you—”
“You only ever think about yourself, Tully.”
“Dad,” Marah says, pulling her brothers in close. “Mom wouldn’t want—”
“She’s gone,” he says sharply. I see how the words hit him, how grief rearranges his face, and I whisper his name, not knowing what else to say. He’s wrong. I meant to help.
Johnny backs away from me. He pushes a hand through his hair and looks at his children, who look scared now, and uncertain. “We’re moving,” he says.
Marah goes pale. “What?”
“We’re moving,” Johnny says, more in control this time. “To Los Angeles. I’ve taken a new job. We need a new start. I can’t live here without her”—he indicates his bedroom. He can’t even look at the bed. He looks at me instead.
“If this is because I tried to help—”
He laughs. It is a dry, scraping sound. “Of course you think it’s about you. Did you hear me? I can’t live in her house.”
I reach for him.
He sidesteps me. “Just go, Tully.”
“Go,” he says again, and I can see that he means it.
I clutch the journal and ease past him. I hug the boys together, holding them tightly and kissing their plump cheeks, trying to imprint their images on my soul. “You’ll visit us, right?” Lucas says unevenly. This little boy has lost so much and the uncertainty in his voice kills me.
Marah grabs my arm. “Let me live with you.”
Behind us, Johnny laughs bitterly.
“You belong with your family,” I say quietly.
“This isn’t a family anymore.” Marah’s eyes fill with tears. “You told her you’d be there for me.”
I can’t listen to any more. I pull my goddaughter into a fierce, desperate hug so tight she struggles to break free. When I pull away and leave the room, I can hardly see through my tears.
“Will you please stop humming?” I say to Kate. “How am I supposed to think with you making that racket? It’s not like these are pleasant memories for me.”
I am not humming.
“Okay. Quit beeping. What are you, the Road Runner?” The sound is soft at first, like a mosquito buzzing near my ear, but it amplifies steadily, becomes ridiculously loud. “Stop making that noise.” I am starting to get a headache.
A real headache. Pain sparks to life behind my eyes, seeps out, turns into a hammer-pounding migraine.
I am as quiet as the grave over here.
“Very funny. Wait. That’s not you. It sounds like a car alarm. What the fu—”
WELOSTHER, someone says, yells, really. Who?
Beside me, I hear Katie sigh. It is a sad sound, somehow, like the tearing of old lace. She whispers my name and then says: Time. It scares me, both the exhaustion I hear in her voice and the word itself. Have I used up all the time allotted to me? Why didn’t I say more? Ask more questions? What happened to me? I know she knows. “Kate?”