A Promise

 In Short Fiction, Stories

I reach out nonexistent fingers to catch your arm, the hem of your shirt. You, there. Sitting on the edge of the bed, head bowed, dripping with sorrow. Your hair is thinning, shiny scalp peeking through the gray-streaked brown at the top of your head, and I wonder if you even know. You flick your fingers near your temples, a self-soothing behavior that, by now, you’ve mostly learned to control. It makes you look much younger, those fluttering fingers. It makes me forget where we are, when we are. Even now, you flicker, grow transparent; the room changes furnishings, becomes an open field swaying with grasses, is plunged underneath the sea. I reach out nonexistent fingers to catch your arm, the hem of your shirt. It’s pointless, but I can’t help myself.

#

I reach out nonexistent fingers to catch your arm, the hem of your shirt. No: those are your fingers, hooking onto my sweater, tugging until I crouch down so that our noses almost touch. Your eyes slide to the right.

“Can we go home?” you whisper. Your oaty breath reminds me that I forgot to make sure you brushed your teeth before we left the house this morning.

“You’ll like it here,” I say. “It’s fun. You’ll learn your letters, and learn how to count…”

“I already know how to count.”

“Okay, so you’ll learn how to count even higher.” Your fingers flick. “And you’ll sing songs and play games. And you’ll make lots of friends.” You look around now, dubious, at the other children in the room: screeching, sticky-fingered creatures dismantling towers and dumping books onto the carpet and sneezing all over everything.

This is wrong, I suddenly realize. This isn’t now. This is years ago. And you hated that preschool, you didn’t make friends, and you came home crying every day.

But you release my sweater and turn toward the teacher like you’re disappearing down a long tunnel. I reach out nonexistent fingers but it’s pointless.

#

The world changes incrementally and all of a sudden. It’s like a child that way. Each day a nearly imperceptible rise in sea level and temperature, in height and weight. Each year the storms and your moods get more intense and dramatic. And then one day the child standing before me is a man, and the planet has turned into something I barely recognize. From my vantage point above the deep groove of the timeline, it’s even more confusing. Beaches build and dissolve in an instant. That arid desert is also a prairie thundering with buffalo, is also a field aggressively lined with corn and soybeans, is covered with ice. And you, my son: you have always been simultaneously a boy and a man. A toddler keeping careful track of each puzzle piece, picking up each Cheerio with dainty fingers. A grade schooler speaking in precise, measured English. A college student caring more for computers than girls. An adult whose face betrays flashes of wonder, of innocence, even as the earth bares her talons.

The ground shakes. The seas rise. The winds howl so fiercely they rip roofs off buildings. The earth is trying to shake off her children like so many fleas. And you there, in your lab, helping humanity cling to the surface. I peer over your shoulder at the computer screen, with its maps and graphs and projections that I can’t interpret. But you can; you do. You extrapolate data and write reports. You give bullet points to newspaper reporters, fidget uncomfortably in front of television cameras. You’ve been warning people for years. You once told me no one was listening, but that isn’t true. I listened. I’m listening still.

#

It’s late at night, and your voice, calling out to me, has woken me from a deep sleep. You are five years old. You started kindergarten a few weeks ago, which means that after years of watching shows that I carefully curated and listening to stories read solely in my voice, you are moving beyond my orbit. So, in spite of my deep exhaustion, I cling to this precious moment of closeness: the darkness of the room cradling us both, the warmth of your tiny body radiating outward and bathing me in your glow.

“Are ghosts real?” You lay snug under your blanket, tucked in tightly the way you like, your nightlight shadowing your face. I sit on the edge of your bed. I’ve learned to keep a bit of distance between us unless you decide to cuddle close on your own. Tonight, you stay in the center of your mattress, staring up at the ceiling.

“No, of course not. Who told you ghosts were real?”

“Someone at school said he was being haunted.”

“No one’s being haunted,” I say. “There’s no such thing as haunting.”

Your face scrunches in thought, making the shadows deepen around your eyes. “When Mr. Denning died, you told Mrs. Denning that he’d always be with her.”

I place my hand on top of your shoulder, feel you stiffen. I pull my hand away and clasp it in my own lap. “All I meant was that he’d live on in her heart, as long as she remembers him. But he’s not actually still there in the house. It’s like a thought, or a memory.”

“But you didn’t say she’d always remember him. You said he’d always be with her.”

“It’s confusing, I know. But you don’t have to worry about it right now. No one is haunting you. Nothing is going to hurt you. You know that, right? I won’t ever let anything hurt you. I promise.”

(There it is; did you catch it? A promise, made lightly and in half-sleep. A promise, made by so many well-meaning parents, that none of us can truly keep.)

You blink up at the ceiling. I can’t tell if you believe me or not. But you quiet down, and I return to my own bed. You’ll lay awake for a while yet, I know, but I can’t do anything about that. You’ve always slept poorly. Even now, even years from now, you’ll often lie in bed for hours before the night takes you, and you’ll wake remembering strange and vivid dreams. I’ve tried entering your dreams, tried speaking directly to your subconscious. Sometimes I think it’s pointless. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve been speaking to you in your dreams your whole life.

#

I was wrong, by the way. Ghosts are real, but not in the way either of us thought. There is no door awaiting the dead. No long tunnel with a light at the end. There is only a choice: remain or depart. No negotiations, no haggling. No option to stay for just a little while, until you avenge your death or tell your ex-wife you never stopped loving her or give someone who deserves it a really good scare. The choice is clear, and stark, and irrevocable.

Those of us who remain float in the atmosphere; we drift across the sea. You are my anchor, keeping me from losing my way in the deep past or the far future. I am just a breath away from you, if only I had breath. That feeling you have right now: the pressure of an intense stare on the back of your neck, a non-touch on your shoulder. That’s me. You glance back, your adrenaline jumping until you realize it’s just a shadow in the corner, just an oddly-shaped lamp. I’ll tell you this, so you know: you will never see me. I will never shimmer in the dark at the foot of your bed, dissolving into dust when you reach out to touch me. I will never slam your bedroom door in the night or knock against the dresser. You will never, ever know that I am here.

#

And yet there you are, so close that if I reached out my hand I could touch your pale wrist. We are sitting in the middle of the basement, which is, you’ve told me, the safest place to be during a hurricane. We’ve had so many hurricanes the past few years that you’ve taken it upon yourself to research them. You’re folded like a piece of paper there on the floor, all acute angles, and your blue-jeaned leg jiggles nervously. The only light comes from your flashlight, which you swing around the corners of the room. It’s too easy, here in the darkness, for me to ignore the sparse stubble above your lip, the angry pimples scattered across your forehead, and see instead the plump pink cheeks that your nightlight used to caress.

“This is still the best place in the country to live.” You’ve repeated those words four times in the last fifteen minutes, but I know you can’t help it. “Right?”

“Right,” I answer. I try to keep my voice calm and light, knowing that you’ll absorb my mood like a sponge. “We don’t get many tornadoes, or earthquakes, and we’re on high ground so we don’t get flooding. Even the hurricanes aren’t as severe by the time they reach us.”

“We just get snow,” you say, shining the flashlight along the edges of the ceiling.

“Just snow. And in the past five years, we haven’t even gotten much of that.”

“Right. So, this is the best place in the country to live. The safest place. Right?”

I nod again. “It is.”

“What if it becomes unsafe here?”

“It won’t.”

“You can’t say that. Things are changing. You said yourself we aren’t getting as much snow as we used to. What if we start getting lots of tornadoes?”

“Then we’ll move. We’ll go wherever it’s safe.”

“We will?” This stops you. You even hold the flashlight still.

“I promise. I’ll always keep you safe. Wherever you go, I go.”

“Let’s save the batteries,” you say, and turn off the flashlight. I lose you in the darkness. I’ve already lived through this once, and so I know that the storm will end, and the two of us will climb back upstairs and fall into our beds. I know that the power will return at seven-forty-five the next evening, just as we are finishing our tuna sandwiches by candlelight, and that none of the limbs I hear cracking and tumbling outside will land on our roof or the car or even the mailbox. Even so, it’s as if I am still in that basement, as if I will always be in that basement, knowing you are there with me but unable to touch you, to reach you.

#

Sometimes I find myself on unfamiliar streets. Water pools on the blacktop and the air is ripe with rain. People clog the street, sitting on curbs or huddled underneath cardboard or scuffing across the pavement in duct-tape-wrapped shoes. But I can’t find you anywhere. It’s like when I used to dream of losing you in a crowd, your small bobbing head disappearing in a sea of baseball hats and ponytails. I seep through the cracks looking for your face, for any hint of you.

A black SUV with government plates edges into the crowd, absurdly gleaming. It bleats its horn and drives slowly enough to nudge people aside as it moves past, slowly enough for some brave souls to pound their fists on the hood and doors, marring the immaculate paint with their dirty handprints and their angry words.

Suddenly, I know why I am here. Because there you are. I see you.

A glimpse, only, through the windshield. You are in the backseat, and your hair is shockingly gray. The car moves faster now and I knock on the tinted back window but my hand evaporates like smoke. The car carries you through a gated entryway, escaping the shouting horde outside, and it’s like you’re disappearing down a long tunnel, and I reach out nonexistent fingers but it’s pointless.

#

I reach for you, my arms open wide to sweep you into a hug. You see me coming and you dart across the living room, out of reach, your tiny bare feet slapping against the wooden floor. It’s a game to you, but also it isn’t. I pretend to chase you for a while, growling like a monster, grasping at the air when you shriek and run away. It is and isn’t a game to me, too, and even though you’re only three, you know I’m going to win eventually. When you see that you’re cornered, you swivel around and back into the hug, curled like a pill bug to protect your vitals, poised for escape. You tolerate the embrace for a couple of seconds before wriggling free. I try not to take it personally, but I am only human. Was.

I rewind and linger on that moment again, when I’ve managed to pull your small body close to mine and memorize every detail. The delicate scent of your tearless shampoo. The dirt underneath your fingernails and the splotch of jelly on your sleeve. We are both suspended between breaths.

Then you exhale, and burst free, a bird releasing itself back into the sky. Time moves on, even for me; it carries me on its shifting current.

I try to stop myself from drifting too far into the future. I am afraid of traveling beyond your lifetime. I am afraid that if I do, I will lose you forever.

#

We’ve unpacked nearly everything, but I’m not ready to leave you, not yet. We’re in your first dorm room, for your first year of college. It’s a small room with concrete walls, thin carpeting, and metal blinds. You’ve lined your books up on your shelf and shoved your clothing into a too-small set of drawers. Now you crouch underneath your desk, plugging in a surge protector and setting up the various components of your computer. I can’t help you with this task; I don’t understand which plug fits into which port, and there’s not enough room for me under the desk anyway. So I pull your sheets—brand new, with matching comforter—out of their zippered plastic pouch and begin to make your bed.

“Stop it, Mom. I can do that.” You haven’t even turned around. All I can see is your rounded back, your shoulder blades winging up underneath your thin t-shirt like the ghost of the child you were.

“I don’t mind. I want to help.”

“I said, I can do it. I want to do it myself.” You unfold yourself now, lifting your head and straightening. Your eyes are red-rimmed, and they dart from the bed to the carpet and back to the bed again. Your head is inches from the ceiling. “I’m going to be fine.”

I’d warned you weeks ago that I was planning to hug you when I dropped you off at college. Now, you submit to it. We are standing in your doorway, surrounded by the bustle of other students hauling suitcases and duffels down the hallway, the clang of the stairwell door and the echo of feet on the steps. Your arms are stiff, your head tilts away from mine. I pull you closer, but already the distance between us feels like miles.

“I’m going to be fine,” you say again when I don’t let go. I hear the tremble in your voice, the tears that wash your vowels, but you keep them contained. “I’m going to be fine.”

#

Your cabinets are stocked with bottled water and canned food that you examine and replace every six months. You keep an extra supply of your medication in a bag that also contains a flashlight and extra batteries, matches, dried fruit and packets of peanut butter, water purification tablets, and a pocket knife. No gun, though, and I don’t know whether to be relieved or concerned. The world has always been frightening for you, and now it’s frightening for us all. Still, you are prepared. You are capable. You are far better able to survive in this world than I ever was. Why, then, do I remain? Why do I skip like a stone across your lifetime, keeping watch, bearing witness? Why do I reach out nonexistent fingers to catch your arm, the hem of your shirt? It’s pointless, but I can’t help myself. I never could.

#

You sit on the edge of the bed, and I remember now: the way your weight on the mattress made me seasick when you shifted. The way you awkwardly patted my hand with your strong, calloused fingers, and the way your soft little-boy skin still lurked underneath like a classroom transparency.

“You can let go, Mom,” you whisper. “You can leave.” I remember now. I have been here before, so many times. The moment is layered with memory, enriched, your words reverberating with my memory of your words.

“I will never leave you,” I promise, we promise, the withered me under the white sheet on the bed, and the me bearing witness. “I will stay with you. I will make sure you that you are safe. Forever.”

You lean against me, your leg pressed against my sheeted one, for just the space of a breath. It’s a moment, that’s all. It’s a gift. It’s everything, and it’s not enough.

In the never-ending unspooling of past and future, there is only this: this intersection of time and space, this one moment.

I reach out nonexistent fingers to catch your arm, the hem of your shirt.

I reach for you.


Jennifer Hudak‘s fiction, creative nonfiction, and personal essays appear online in publications ranging from Runners World to Literary Mama; her short fiction also appears in the anthology Endless Apocalypse (Flame Tree 2018). She lives with her husband and children in upstate New York where, in addition to writing, she teaches yoga, collects cookbooks, and knits tiny pocket-sized animals. Find her on Twitter @writerunyoga.

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