John Michael Cummings - The Promise

I had been standing on the edge of the Razek’s woods for an hour after daybreak, wondering why there was a Big John’s moving van in their drive, when Anja eased through the screen door of the big, dark house, hopped off the porch, and came bounding across the yard to me, blonde bangs bouncing.

“Guess what?” she said.  “I’m moving!”

The small zipper that was my life closed. 

“White Plains, New York!  I’ll be just an hour away from Julliard—I’m so excited!” 

Somehow, while my heart was free-falling into the Marianas Trench, she saw a puzzled look on my face.

“My aunt and uncle live there.  I’ll be staying with them.”

Then, the world began turning backward, like a merry-go-round in reverse.  The faster it went, the more out of kilter I became.  All the while, the sky leaned down over me in a great hulking shadow.  When she threw her arms around me, my ribs felt as puny as sticks. 

“You’ll have to come visit,” she said, her breath in my ear.  “Promise?

When she started leading me by the hand toward her house, my body became dead weight.

“No?” she said, looking back at me. 

I stood looking down, sullen-faced.  This was what being in love with her had reduced me to—pouting.

“Josh,” she said, her tone becoming firm, “I told you.  Pipertown was never meant to be permanent for us.  Daddy got a great deal on this house because of the location near—”

I put my hand up.  I didn’t want to hear anymore.  Being in love with her really was ridiculous.  Every great rise in my heart was met by a worse low.  It was too much for a human being to feel.   

“Oh, Josh,” she said, a pleading look on her face, “don’t be sad.”

Don’t be sad?  Okay, would dead be better?

We stood there for a long moment, neither saying a word.  I wanted to cry in her arms—or be happy forever in them.  It was always this extreme.  

I mean, how sane is it to feel alive because of one person?  How could I survive life wanting someone like that?  Better yet, what could I do other than whimper for her now?  Jesus H. Christ, I envied her dog!  At least he got to go with her to White Fields, New York, or wherever, and sit on the floor near her and pant.  I’d do that anywhere.  In a chair, too!

“Come on,” she said, her tone changing as she took me by the hand and led me in another direction, “I want to show you something.”

I didn’t bother asking where we were going.  Hopefully we’d both get bit by copperheads along the way and die in each other arms. 

I followed her into the woods on the near side of her house, where soon we reached what appeared to be a second path, lightly walked down.  It meandered here and there, disappeared in places, then swung in wide circles before continuing on. 

Suddenly, we came upon something I couldn’t believe I was seeing, something magnificent, desolate, and quieter than the creaking trees around it—a second big old house, not two hundred yards away, just sitting there in the shade of the treetops, like some great lost monument. 

“Wow,” I said.  “It’s been here all this time?”

I stood gawking up.  It was much more majestic than Anja’s house, having huge wooden porch columns, like a southern plantation home.  But as grand as it was, clearly it had not been lived in for fifty years, as the columns were cruddy-white and the windows were broken out, sashes and all.  Also, there were several bright-orange No Trespassing signs tacked to the big trees nearby, and weeds were growing up through the brick terrace.

Anja, looking pleased with herself, said two rich old sisters had once lived here.  She knew nothing else about it.  Her brother Henry cut his foot on glass once roaming around it.          

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her watching me gape up at it.  It was too overwhelming to say anything about.  This lofty place was not possible, rising out of the trees beyond Powell’s Holler, on the other side of which were the shanties of Pipertown.  But here it was, the whole time, not a mile from my house. 

As I stared into the black window, I had the feeling the house was looking back.  There was such a mystique about it.  A dusty, abandoned mansion in the woods.  It left me eerie inside.

Anja sat on the concrete steps leading up to it, which were covered with curled-up leaves seasons old, the way leaves cover a gravestone.  Several moments later, I joined her.  With our knees pulled up, we looked not up at the old house, but out at the woods we had just come through.

“Life is full of surprises, Josh,” she said.  “Don’t ever stop looking.”

I looked over at her.  If she meant that the rest of my life would be a treasure hunt, and when I was 99, I would find her again, this time at the other end of the rainbow, then I understood. 

I watched her pick up a leaf and press it flat in her hand.  A long moment passed as we both stared at this leaf.  I wasn’t sure if I was looking at a dead leaf or myself crumbled up in her palm. 

“Are all of you moving?” I managed to ask.

She shook her head.

“Just me.  At least for now,” she said, not explaining any further.  “So, anyway, this school in White Plains has a Julliard-accredited drama department.  I’ll be studying under Jonathan Kingston Talley—he starred in three of Edward Albie’s plays!  There’s even a new, $15 million, 500-seat theater and recital hall, with a proscenium stage!  Oh, Josh, you’ll have to come visit me?  Say you will.  Promise,” she said again.

Then she noticed my face, and her shoulders drooped, and her face fell.  But before she could say anything to pity me, I stood and stepped up onto the terrace.

“We could live here?” I said, my hand touching the chipped paint of the column.

“Oh, Josh, here?

I turned around.

“Why not?”

All the columns needed was a little paint, I said.  The yard needed clearing.  I could do that easily.  I could figure out how to fix the windows, too. 

“Oh, I just don’t think my future’s on this mountain,” she said plainly enough.

I watched her turn back around and look off into the woods again. She really wanted to go to acting school in New York, she said.  It had been her dream since she was young.  She had friends who were going.  Her mother thought it was a good idea, too.  

I stood as lonely and lost as this old mansion.  New York?  I sure didn’t know anything about New York.  All I knew was that I could paint these columns bright white for her and clean up the yard, too.  We could live here, and I wanted to live here with her.

“Here,” she said, standing, wiggling her class ring off her finger. 

She turned and put it in my hand, even pressed my fingers closed around it, the gold and ruby warming to my palm. 

“Keep it for me.”

With just a kiss on the cheek for all I felt for her, I couldn’t help but to drop my head.  As I did, the skies drained over my eyes like black ink. 

She was really moving?  Before we even got started?  No wonder she didn’t mind being my boyfriend for 19 days, eight hours, and twenty-two minutes.  

“Josh, you’re really sweet,” she said.

Sweet?  So is fruitcake.  But that doesn’t stop people from throwing it out.

“No one has ever sent me 11 emails in one day.  I’ll remember you forever.”

Why couldn’t she just want me forever instead?  Why couldn’t she just run away to a private place with me, instead of acting with Jonathan Kingston guy? 

It was her fault.  She kept inviting the world to us, slicing herself up like a cake everybody got a bite off, but nobody got enough of.  I stood by the broken-out window, ready to jump into it like a grave.

“Make me a promise,” she said. 

What, not to kill myself until after she had left?

“Promise me you’ll never stop drawing.”

I looked at her.  What? 

“Promise me you’ll send me a hundred beautiful drawings.”

I tried not to be so glum, but her promise smelled like a consolation prize.  How about a hundred beautiful suicide letters? 

“Josh,” she said, her voice curling up into a question, “you ever wonder why I introduced myself to you in the first place?”

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her waiting for an answer.  But I didn’t

feel like it.  When I finally looked over at her, I could see she already had the answer.

“Because of your drawing in the library,” she said.

My drawing in the library?  That stupid thing!  I just drew two birds on a branch. 

Mr. Thompson, my art teacher, decided it was good enough to stick in a frame and hang in the library over the bust of Abe Lincoln.  No one else in school seemed to notice it.

“Seriously,” she said, giving my shoulders a nudge with her own, “you never see the talent you have.”

I looked over, those adorable little cheeks of hers swirled up into a smile. 

“Promise me?” she asked again.

“What,” I said, “you just want me to walk around Pipertown and draw a hundred drawings and send them to you?”  It felt good pretending to have some personality left at this point.

She nodded.

“Will you?”

I rolled my eyes.                    

“Promise, please,” she said.


“Just promise—but mean it.”

So I did, even if I didn’t at the time.


John Michael Cummings’ short stories have appeared in North American Review, Alaska Quarterly ReviewThe Chattahoochee ReviewThe Kenyon Review, and The Iowa Review.  His fiction is forthcoming this year in Natural Bridge.  His short story “The Scratchboard Project,” published in The Iowa Review, received an honorable mention in The Best American Short Stories 2007.

In addition, his first novel, The Night I Freed John Brown, will be published by Philomel Books (Penguin Group) in May.

Posted on December 7, 2013 .