Read by Jackson Pearce
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5 years, 352 days before
When I said it, I didn't mean it. I just wanted to go home after another long day in the ICU. But then, I didn't know it was really the end this time.
"Promise me something," my mom said, her voice cracking, a whisper over the hum of machines that latched onto her body. Sometimes I thought those cords and tubes and electrodes were the only things holding her here. Without them, she'd slip away like a balloon string sliding from a child's fingers.
I nodded, ignoring the pain in my wrist from grasping her hand over the railing. It was an old pain, a dull ache I'd gotten used to, just like the way my spine begged to be stretched and my lungs longed for air without the scent of rubbing alcohol and gauze. Waiting in a hospital for a few months will do that to a body, I guess—even the body of a ten-year-old.
Mom's fingers were frail, and her skin seemed too big for the bones underneath. She smiled, pulling at the tape holding a tube into her nose. "Promise me, Shelby, that you'll do three things. For always, from here on out." She spoke like this a lot—like it was the end. It used to scare me, but after so many months I'd sort of gotten used to it.
I kissed her palm the way she used to kiss mine when she put me to bed. Back when I let her read me picture books long after I'd lost interest in them just because I could tell how happy it made her.
"Sure," I said, ignoring my dad at the door. He was giving me the "five minutes" hand gesture in between intense whispers to a nurse.
My mom rubbed my palm with her thumb, then continued. "Three things. Listen to your father, Shel. Love and listen to him." She paused, and remnants of a laugh laced her voice when she spoke again. "Poor thing doesn't know what to do with a girl." She reached up and ran a hand through the tips of my overgrown hair.
"Okay, Mom," I sighed. "But if this is about that thing with the makeup, it's not fair. Dad says I can't wear any."
My mother shook her head. "I know. It's not about that. Listen—second thing: Love as much as possible."
I raised an eyebrow. My mom had always been a dreamer, but this was a little intense even for her.
"Okay, I will," I said as my dad held up two fingers. "I have to go soon—"
"And last," she cut me off, her lips trembling a little, like she'd cry if she had the energy, "live without restraint. Do you understand what I mean?"
Not really—I had no clue what she was talking about. One minute left. I stood, leaning over to hug her—she wasn't much bigger than me, and my arms felt strong around her body. "Sure."
"I mean it, Shelby. Promise me," she said as she hugged me back, her voice growing louder than it'd been all summer, desperation on every syllable.
"Okay, Mom," I said, sincere. "I promise. All three things. I'll do them."
My mom relaxed. The nurse walked in to inject her IV with a clear fluid. I unwound my arms from Mom's body and waved good-bye as my dad took my place by her bed to bid his own farewell. Two tiny tears dripped down Mom's cheeks; the nurse wiped them away without hesitation.
When I said it, I didn't mean it. I didn't know it was really the end. And now… how could I possibly break a promise made to a dying woman?
35 days before
This thing didn't seem nearly as high when I looked at it from the ground.
I cringe and sidestep the rusty rails, balancing carefully on the graying wooden planks. The early summer sun glares at me, reflecting up from the lake water. I sink to my knees and scoot toward the edge.
"You can do it, Shelby!" my friend Ruby calls from below, sprawled on the hood of Lucinda, Jonas's beat-up hatchback. Ruby gives me a thumbs-up and nods emphatically.
"Are you okay?" calls another voice, tinged with worry and concern. Jonas shields his eyes from the sun and tries to look up at me. "You can come down. We can do it another day."
"This is the fourth time we've been out here!" I shout. "I just have to… do it." I dare to gaze at the water below.
Promise Three: Live without restraint. Hurling oneself off an abandoned railroad trestle into a lake seems stupid more than it does unrestrained, now that I think about it. I know the water is deep enough for the jump—I've swum in it a hundred times and watched a half dozen other Ridgebrook students take the plunge. But knowing doesn't make it any less terrifying.
"Our bodies are our gardens, our wills our gardeners," Jonas calls.
"What?" I snap back.
"Othello," Jonas says. He's read everything Shakespeare ever wrote and memorized half of it. Usually his tendency to throw out quotes isn't irritating, but when I'm trembling on the edge of a trestle, it's hard to appreciate dead playwrights.
"It means your will can make your body jump," Jonas explains.
"Not hardly," I reply. My body demands I stay put, and is astoundingly persuasive.
Jonas shakes his head. "Hang on, I'm coming up."
Hanging on is definitely something I'm willing to do. I sit back on the wooden planks and watch Jonas struggle to climb the steep bank that leads up to the railroad tracks. The tracks are long abandoned but sturdy, despite the mountain of kudzu overtaking one side.
"Wait, I want to come!" Ruby shouts, jumping off the car. She nimbly scales the incline, overtaking Jonas, who gets caught in a patch of Carolina jasmine. Ruby giggles as she helps free him, and finally the two maneuver toward me. Jonas huffs as they do so—puberty gave him great hair and skin but took away the wiry athlete's body he used to have. I think it's a fair trade, personally—all puberty gave me was what the tactless might call childbearing hips.
"I'm telling you, Shelby, it's not as bad as you think," Ruby says, plopping down as if we were only a few feet off the ground. I glance down at the rows of crisscrossed timber that hold the railway—and us—up; they look like a pile of pickup sticks. What if I jump and hit one of those?
Jonas uses my shoulders for balance as he tiptoes around me, staying much farther from the edge. "If you're going to do it, you should hurry. Your dad said to be back by four," he reminds me.
"I know," I sigh, fiddling with the edge of my shorts. Promise One: Love and listen to my father. It's made me embarrassingly obedient at times—I've never missed a "be back by" curfew. It's also taught me the value of the "If he doesn't specifically say I can't do it, I can do it" philosophy.
I gaze across the landscape—mostly trees, bright summery green, but I can make out cars on the bridge across the lake.
Jonas sighs. "Look, the trestle isn't going anywhere. We'll come back sometime this summer—"
"Hey, give her a chance," Ruby cuts in, leaning so far out over the trestle that Jonas gasps. Ruby laughs and swings her multitoned legs off the side—Ruby has that disease that makes your skin lose pigment, but you'd never really know it was a disease with her. Her skin is toffee-colored but dappled with patches of ivory. Up here against the blue sky, it looks like a few puffy clouds have taken refuge on her body.
"Would it help if I jumped with you?" Ruby asks.
"You're not wearing a bathing suit."
Ruby shrugs. "Still, would it help?"
I pause. At least this way, I won't be plummeting to the ground alone. I nod and Ruby leaps to her feet.
"Great," Jonas mutters. He tugs his shirt off, tossing it to the ground.
"You're gonna do it, too?" I ask, a grin spreading across my face.
"I can't be the only one not to," Jonas says. He rises, then offers me a hand up. Ruby pulls her tank top off, revealing a sparkly pink bra underneath. Jonas rolls his eyes, but even he laughs a little. I hike up the straps of my bathing suit top and look out over the skyline.
"Okay, try to make your body straight like an arrow," Ruby instructs. "Otherwise it hurts like hell."
"Fantastic," Jonas says.
"Ready?" Ruby asks. Jonas wraps his fingers around mine; I reach down and grab Ruby's as well.
"One," I say. This is it, Mom. This is for you.
I'm not sure who jumps first, but the next thing I know, the three of us sail through the air, blue sky sliding into green trees toward the lake. This is life without restraint; this is what Mom wanted for me. We release our hands. I'm scared for an instant, then somehow free.
We hit the water. It jets up my nose as I plummet toward the lake's bottom. I kick off the squishy silt and begin to paddle toward the surface. When I emerge, Jonas and Ruby are already laughing and splashing. I squint up at the trestle and grin.
We swim for a few minutes before heading back to the shore. Jonas opens Lucinda's hatchback and tosses us all old Mickey Mouse towels. I wrap mine around myself while they retrieve their shirts. Then we climb into the car.
Lucinda is decked out with zebra-print seat covers and a skull in place of the gearshift knob. She's not exactly a luxury vehicle, but there's something about her that tells you "Trust me—I've made it this far, haven't I?" Which is why we don't worry when there's a loud bang and the check-engine light starts flashing as we rumble along the gravel road.
We arrive at a stop sign, the intersection of the trestle's tiny road and the main highway. I'm too anxious to wait any longer.
"Where's my list?" I ask Jonas.
He reaches across my lap and into the glove compartment and retrieves his wallet. He removes a folded-up, floppy paper from the billfold—Life List is penciled across the top in bubbly handwriting.
"You have a pen?" he asks, spreading the ancient piece of paper across the steering wheel.
"You think I'd forget a pen on a cross-off day?" I say, grabbing one from the bottom of my purse. Jonas takes the pen, then runs his finger down the paper until he finds the item he's looking for. He carefully crosses it out, then hands the list over and eases Lucinda forward.
Life List item one hundred and six: Jump off the Lake Jocassee trestle like Mom did in high school. It was added to the list soon after she died—judging by Jonas's handwriting, I'd say fifth or sixth grade. It's right before Put flowers on every grave in a cemetery (haven't done it yet) and Learn all eighty-eight constellations (accomplished late last year). Jonas loves making lists, and he was the one who'd thought of a Life List to help me keep Promise Three. He's always been its official keeper since the day he began it in the funeral home while we waited for her service to begin.
When someone you love dies, it feels like the ground is crumbling away, falling into oblivion. The only thing you can do is grab onto all the things closest to you and hold on tight. I grabbed onto the Promises, to Jonas, to God.
The first two were there. The last one I could never find.
"Wait, while you have the list out," Ruby says from the backseat as she runs her fingers through her wet hair, "I saw this show about a rocket thing that makes you weightless for, like, thirty seconds. So it's like being in space, only without having to actually go to school and become an astronaut and all that. How badass is that? How many people do you know who get to be weightless?"
I nod. "That's a good one. Add it," I say, handing the paper back to Jonas. Ruby usually comes up with the best list suggestions—she started being homeschooled in ninth grade and spends most of her "study" time watching the Discovery Channel.
"I'll just write down 'be weightless' and put the whole rocket thing on the digital copy." He scribbles in a vacant patch of the paper when we get to a red light. "I need to laminate this or something, or start a new one."
"No way," I argue. "That one's special. It's got… character."
"It's got chocolate syrup stains on it," Jonas reminds me, making a face. We both know what I mean, though—it's been six years and over four hundred items, one hundred three of which are now crossed out. You don't just start fresh when something has that sort of history, even if there are a few stains.
I twist my hair up in a bun and pull on a shirt over my bathing suit as we head to Flying Biscuit, the restaurant where Ruby works. It's the sort of place with tacky tablecloths and a mostly tattooed staff where every menu item has a clever name. I liked it even before Ruby worked here. It's, like, this little mecca of weird in the middle of a pretty-straitlaced town.
Jonas and I sit down in our usual booth, and Ruby, even though she isn't working, ducks into the kitchen to get us drinks.
"What's the next list item?" Jonas says, spinning his silverware on the table.
I shrug. "I want to get three or four done this summer, though."
He looks up at me and raises his eyebrows. "That's ambitious."
"You don't think I can do it?"
"I think you can do it. I'm just wondering what I'll end up doing because of it. I'm still not on board with the skydiving one," he says, but he's grinning. Ruby returns with drinks—she's filled her Coke with maraschino cherries and grenadine.
"Why's it so crowded here?" Jonas asks, glancing around—the place is never exactly packed, but more tables than normal are filled.
"Sunday," Ruby says with a shrug. "Lunch church crowd."
"Ah, of course," Jonas says, nodding. He's half Jewish, half atheist—I have no idea how that works, exactly, but it seems to. Ruby stopped going to church ages ago, and I finally bowed out a few years back, when I realized I wasn't getting anything but nauseated listening to a pastor talk about God's plan. It's not exactly heartwarming to hear that the guy you're supposed to be worshipping planned all along for your mom to die.
I look around at the families who had likely come from church—adorable family units with two parents and a few kids, all with hair ribbons and tights. I wonder whether they'd break as easily as our family did if you removed the mother from the picture.
"Shelby?" Ruby says.
"You're staring at that kid. It's freaky. Almost as freaky as that tie he's wearing. What kind of parent loops a noose around their kid's neck and calls it fashionable?" Ruby says disdainfully.
"That's why Jonas doesn't wear ties," I say, turning back to them. "He's afraid he'll accidentally hang himself."
"That's so not true," Jonas argues. "I'm not afraid I'll hang myself. I'm afraid it'll get caught in a door or a motor or a car wheel."
I snicker and Ruby raises her eyebrows.
"What?" Jonas asks, his voice rising. "It happens! It happened to Isadora Duncan!"
"Who?" I ask.
"She was this famous dancer in the twenties. She was wearing a big, long scarf, and it got caught in her car tires. And her neck broke. I don't want my obituary to read 'death by tie,' thanks. Don't laugh at me, Ruby," Jonas says.
"Oh, no, I'm not laughing at you for the tie thing anymore. Now I'm laughing at you for knowing about twenties dance stars."
"Shelby?" Jonas asks, waiting for me to choose a side.
"I…" I grin, looking from one to the other. "I have to side with Jonas on this one. It's history. Important, safety-themed history."
"Ha," Jonas says, tilting his chin at Ruby mockingly.
"Yeah, yeah, she just sides with you because she's known you longer. You have seniority," Ruby says, laughing.
Not much longer, but longer. I didn't meet Ruby until after Mom died, whereas I met Jonas in kindergarten. Sometimes it feels like Jonas knows everything about where I've come from but Ruby knows everything about where I'm going. I suspect, between the two of them, they know me better than I do.
"I can eat four today, I think," Ruby says as a giant plate of biscuits is delivered.
"Five," Jonas says, raising his eyebrows. They look at me.
"Four. Maybe. I suck at this," I answer.
"You've just got to learn to keep chewing even after you've had so many they don't taste good. It's all about commitment," Jonas says, looking at Ruby as if they're about to drag race each other.
"Ready, set, go."
* * * *
Ruby won the biscuit contest—she ate six. She almost always wins, but that doesn't stop Jonas from competing. And I was right; as delicious as Flying Biscuit's biscuits are, I just can't force them down after the third one. After we wallowed in overfull agony for a while, we head back to my house. My hair is mostly dry and signs of the lake trip are few and far between, thankfully. It's not that I don't want Dad to know I went to the lake; it's that Dad's knowing what I do occasionally leads to questions, which occasionally lead to statements like "Don't do that again," which I can't brush off because of Promise One: Love and listen to my father. Promise One means no disobeying, which means my life is a thousand times easier when I just keep Dad in the dark.
"Who's that?" Ruby asks as we pull up to my house. There's a tan car in the driveway.
"I don't know," I say, shrugging. "Probably a committee person. Come in with me. I don't want to get stuck in the small-talk loop."
"Committee people" are the only people who visit my house. My dad doesn't really have friends, exactly—he has fellow board members. Volunteers. Since Mom died, he's been on just about every panel and committee and board that the community has to offer. He says he does it because all the volunteering that people did after Mom died helped him—and he's right, there's something innately therapeutic about an endless stream of casseroles. But I think he really does it because he wants to be out of the house. The more time he gives to the community, the less time he has to think about the family that broke in his hands.
Jonas parks the car and we walk to the house, crushing the dandelions that occupy more space on our lawn than actual grass. I push the front door open. My dad is sitting at the dining room table, which is covered in thick stacks of pink-and-gold paper. In the chair beside him is a man I vaguely recognize—one of the pastors from a nearby church.
"Shelby!" the pastor says. I just smile because I don't remember his name. "We were wondering when you'd get back. We'd love to get your thoughts on the Princess Ball while we're still in the planning stages. The church is the lead sponsor this year. We're really excited about it."
Ah, the Princess Ball. A father-daughter dance and a Ridgebrook tradition—well, sort of. It used to be huge, but now only a fraction of the girls at school go, always the summer before senior year. I figured I'd skip it, since attending a ball with Dad seems like a contender for a Top Ten Awkward Moments list. Apparently, Dad's awkward radar isn't as accurate as mine.
"Here," Dad says, handing me a pink-and-gold pamphlet. It clashes with the faded wallpaper in our dining room. On the cover is a young girl looking lovingly up at a graying model of a man, the kind who's on shaving-cream commercials.
"Your dad has offered to coordinate all the events, and the decorating committee is already throwing around ideas," the pastor says, smiling. The way he says the word events makes it seem like it could be either a carnival or a beheading. I rub the glossy paper between my fingers for a moment.
"Um… okay…" I answer cautiously—obviously, I'm going to try to get out of going. I don't want to get Dad's hopes up by appearing excited. Ruby and Jonas shift behind me.
Dad opens his mouth, but words don't come as easily as they did for the pastor. He hesitates. "Great. Great. It'll be fun." He pauses for a long time. "Where were you this morning?" Damn. He almost never asks where I've been.
"We were just swimming," Jonas says, stepping in quickly. If he tells Dad, then if Dad says "Don't do that again," it means it's directed at Jonas, not me. Unless he makes it "Don't do that again, Shelby." Yeah, that's a loophole, but Jonas and I decided long ago that when it comes to the Promises, loopholes are nothing to shy away from.
"Oh. Fun," Dad says, sounding a bit confused. He turns back to the pastor. "Well, we'll touch base again in a few weeks?"
"Sounds great, Doug. See you then. Bye, Shelby!"
"Bye… um… sir." Jonas says you can never go wrong calling adults "ma'am" or "sir." Ruby says you can never go wrong calling someone "baby." I think, in this case, Jonas is right.
The pastor leaves, so I make a break for my bedroom, Ruby and Jonas behind me. We shut the door. Ruby and I slump onto the bed while Jonas takes my desk chair after delicately tipping a pile of clothes off it.
"Are you going to the Princess Ball?" I ask Ruby.
She laughs and raises her eyebrows at me. "Seriously? Me? One, I don't wear pantyhose, and I'm pretty sure Princess Ball security checks that at the door. And secondly, can you imagine my dad at that thing? I don't think he even owns a suit. I don't think he even owns a button-down shirt, come to think of it."
"Let me see it," Jonas says, reaching out for the pamphlet. I hand it over.
"Who does go to it now, anyway?" Ruby asks.
"I think the church's youth group. Some people from school still go, too. I don't really know," I say, pausing. "My mom went."
"Really?" Ruby says.
"Yeah. Somewhere we've got a picture of her at it in a dress with puffy sleeves. It's pretty eighties-tastic."
"You're all supposed to wear white. Or, at least, it's advised," Jonas says, pointing to the pamphlet. "Though looks like the puffy sleeves are optional." He folds down one side and continues to read the back. Ruby stretches for my hairbrush and runs it through her hair.
"You make vows at this thing?" Jonas says.
"Vows? No, nothing that serious. I think you're supposed to, like… learn to be close or to respect each other or to only fight on Tuesday nights or something. Not really sure how a ball teaches you that, but—"
"No, Shel—you take vows. It says so on the back," Jonas says, looking serious.
I rise and go to my desk, sitting on the edge while Jonas holds the pamphlet out for me to see. On the back, right above the logos of all the Princess Ball sponsors—the church's the largest and centered—are three sentences in a swirly font that's hard to read.
After a night of dinner and dancing,
the Princess Ball concludes with a ceremony:
Fathers will vow to be strong, responsible men of integrity
and to play a central role in their daughters' lives.
Daughters will vow to look to their fathers for guidance
and to live whole, pure lives.
Okay, no big deal—looking to your father for guidance, that's pretty similar to Promise One anyway. But living a pure life? What does that mean? I snatch the pamphlet away from Jonas and flip it over, looking for some sort of code or glossary. Nothing.
And it's the complete lack of explanation that makes me realize exactly what pure means.
"Sex. That's what they mean, right? I promise Dad I won't have sex," I say flatly.
"Looks like it. I guess if the church is the lead sponsor, they can throw some antisex stuff into the ball."
"So what do I do?" I ask, my voice rising. "I can't vow something to Dad. I'll have to keep it or I break Promise One."
- "The heroines of Pearce's Sisters Red and Sweetly struggled against an outwardly hostile world, and the same is true of Shelby."—Publishers Weekly
- On Sale
- Apr 24, 2012
- Hachette Audio