What We Promise Each Other

Submitted into Contest #25 in response to: Write a short story about someone accomplishing one of their resolutions.... view prompt



When dawn slips past her curtains, her eyes flutter stubbornly against the light. Distantly, she remembers the promise to rise with the sun; remembers that it was the sort of promise she couldn’t break. Remembers what she paid with that promise, and suddenly it’s not morning and she isn’t in bed. 

She is crouched on a parking lot curb in the dark, head in her hands, breath coming slow and then fast and then slow again. This was where he leaves her. Chest tight, lungs struggling, mind spinning. Head sliding lower and lower to the asphalt below. This was where she always knew he would leave her. The preparation, the distance, the months of antiseptic coldness- they have done nothing to numb the sharp sting of this pain. Pastor had told her that fear is the devil and the devil was a liar, but was there anything truer than this fear, a fear that had promised itself to her ever since she could understand words? 

Every night, she had crept into a sitting room filled with smoke and kissed a drunk man on the cheek. “Good night, Daddy.” A leave-taking and a prayer in the same breath. Hours later, the house gone still and dark and sepuchral, she would slip back into the room, tugging a blanket up to his neck as she paused to listen to the stutter-stop of his breathing. She would count the Mississippis between his straggling breaths. 

Would he live through the night?

Did she want him to?

In the morning, if he woke up, it would be early. Sunlight would still be fighting to break through the treetops as the cicadas screamed their joie de vivre into the otherwise silent air. She would wake early, too. While Mother and brothers slept, she would wet and slick unruly naps into a serviceable bun, and find a battered tennis racket and three torn yellow balls and wait faithfully by the front door. He would show up, sun-freshened and cheerful, a mug of green tea in hand. He always showed up. Until the sun rose high and hot in the summer sky, they would be in the corner of the city park, he patiently throwing and serving, she desperately sprinting and swinging. When the sun rose high enough to win sweaty acquiesence, they went home. The sun would sink across the sky, and slowly they would sink into their night selves. She hid behind books. Every day, he found the bottle. Never before six. But never not at all. 

She appealed quietly to Mother. Tripped over her tongue to find the words that wouldn’t get her smacked. Daddy doesn’t drink too much. Daddy doesn’t have a problem. But maybe... is Daddy sick? 

No. He was not. She sought comfort in the unyielding resoluteness of “no,” but could only find the uncertain shakiness of poorly executed deception. So she kept worrying. It seemed like the most honest way forward. 

She grows taller. The adoration and love of a daughter for a father sharpened and edited itself, becoming first the scorn of a teenager and then the awe of a young adult, always carrying with it that shade of fear. She gets the call before it can settle itself as the comfort of friendship.

She’s on a train beside the Hudson River when her phone begins to filter through the darkness trying to reach her flying along at 70 miles per hour.

All around her, twenty-somethings party drunkenly. The smell of tequila hangs astringently in the air, and at the end of the car, champagne bottle pops. 

A boy with a floppy shock of brown hair holds a bottle aloft. “To passing the New York bar!” he cries. The car responds with whoops and cat calls.

In her seat, she smiles, but settles deeper in her seat. She checks her phone. She still has no messages. That makes two days now. She sets the phone face down on her lap and stares out the window with deliberation. She doesn’t notice the floppy-haired boy until he is just beside her, and she jumps. He raises his hands in apology. “Charger! Charger? May I?” He gesticulates to the unused outlet beside her. She waves him on. As he leaves, he thanks her. “Shot?” he asks. There’s a new bottle in his hand. She smiles again, but waves again too. After he’s gone, she checks her phone again. The battery is dying. She is glad.

From her aunt, an aunt she never sees, a message now reads: “Hey baby. Is your dad okay now?”

She doesn’t know what this means, but her heart starts to thrum a warning, a strong hold crusader preparing for a fight.

Two trains later, midnight gone, she finally calls the sister she knows will crack. Learns about the 911 call, the ambulance ride, the medically induced coma. Don’t come tonight. Nothing will happen tonight.

Fear is the most exquisite liar.

It’s near 2am that night and she is flying along I95, because a new call came through.This one tells her that there isn’t much time, and that the time that remains is for saying goodbye. 

The tiny hospital is empty when she burst through the emergency room doors, no one in the lobby, at check-in, or the security desk. When she finds the Cardiology wing, she finds the staff, and if she didn’t know her father was dying already, she sees it now in the faces of the nurses and orderlies who fall silent at her presence and turn mournful faces toward her. 

Goodbye is surprisingly easy. When she creeps up to the hospital bed, he isn’t there. A grey-faced man lies sleeping beneath crisp white sheets. Machines push breath through his lungs and blood through his veins. She kisses this stranger on the cheek and tells him to go. A leave-taking and prayer. 

In the lobby, before she finds the restful darkness parking lot, there are tears and apologies. We couldn’t tell you...he would have wanted you to finish the exam. Fear is a liar but this is brave and it is truth. She accepts it, and stumbles away, staggering under the unwieldiness of this strange new grief.

In the morning, when she woke up, it would be early. It always was.

January 25, 2020 04:48

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