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The Promises She Keeps
By ERIN HEALY
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2010 Erin Healy
All rights reserved.
In the silence of night, sounds of life have a greater chance of being heard.
One of these sounds woke Chase Ellis from deep sleep at a heavy predawn hour. His rousing was sudden and full, so that without any bleary transition he found himself aware of his own thoughts. He lay on his back under a rhythmic ceiling fan. The blades made their circuit and caused the fan's light chain to tink against a glass globe. This familiar noise usually rocked his mind into rest. Something else had disrupted him.
The shadows of his father's room possessed all their usual shapes, though Chase evaluated them as being darker than usual by twelve to fifteen percent. The saturated dimness was due to the time, a full three hours before his intuitive rising with the sun. He needed no clock to know this. A vivid scene unfolded in Chase's mind: On the other side of the world, where his father had slept and awakened for the past ten years, the sun blazed over a desert afternoon. There were no trees in that dry land, only people, who moved slowly like Tolkien's Ents. The hot light shone on his father, whom Chase envisioned as one of the world's most enduring trees. Pinus longaeva had been dated to thousands of years, and in some cases a tree stayed firmly upright long after its death.
Chelsea said their father was certainly dead by now, but in Chase's thoughts the man was green and bursting with seedy cones, and so Chase could not agree with her.
He heard the noise again. He lifted the corner of the blanket and peeled it off his body, then did the same with the sheet. He sat up, then pivoted so his feet swung together over the edge of the bed. The stiff fibers of the carpet brushed his toes.
By the timing of the overhead chain, which hit the globe precisely on each second, Chase counted one minute and seven seconds of waiting before the sound came a third time: the rattling of sticks in a tin can. It came from the room across the hall, which had been Chase's as a child before his father was deployed, before Chase's drawings took over that space and Chase took over his father's room.
Chase walked through shadows without turning on the light, because he did not need it and was not afraid. He knew the width of every passage and the protrusion of every sharp corner, the location of every shoe and book on the floor. He walked out of the room and through the hall, past the closed door of the bathroom. The rattling ceased.
His entrance into his old bedroom moved just enough air to lift the edge of a drawing tacked to the wall. The movement created a mild papery rustling among his other sketches—like leaves in a spring breeze—before sighing back to rest. This was his welcome.
Chase crossed the room and turned on the desk lamp, which leaned over a spiral-bound book of black drawing paper. The light bounced off his white T-shirt. The red fabric of his basketball shorts turned shiny and felt weightless against his skin. He did not play basketball, but he liked the texture of the pants. The brilliant bulb transformed the uncovered window behind the desk into a sheet of black glass, as black as the paper Chase used for his drawings.
On either side of the wide obsidian, built-in shelving reached all the way up to the ceiling and all the way out to the adjoining walls, and each shelf was lined with cans and tin cases. These contained stumps and brushes and sticks and tools and pencils. White pencils. White was the only color Chase used.
But not only pencils. The cans and tins were filled with many white substances suitable for drawing: water-soluble ink pencils, oil paint sticks, oil pastels, white-charcoal pencils and sticks, pastels and pastel pencils, colored pencils, woodless aqua pencils, Conté crayons in which graphite had been mixed with clay, white-tinted graphite pencils, and china markers. He had a tailor's marker, blackboard chalk, a few paperless white Crayolas, stage makeup, cornstarch and talc (which could be liquefied and applied with the nub of a quill pen), and also bars of soap.
Chase listened to the shelves. He owned 210 containers, 105 on each side of the window, fifteen items on each of the seven tiers. He knew the contents of each. He waited for the one that had awakened him.
On the right side of the window, third shelf from the top, the sixth canister from the left began to hum. The former Progresso soup can, stripped of its blue label, contained a broken stick of quarter-inch General's white charcoal, one General's pencil, two Derwent Graphitint pencils, and a rubber blending stump. The hum increased to a rattling in earnest, a vibration that shifted the can toward the brink. Chase watched it fall.
The contents scattered across the carpet at his feet, and the broken stick of charcoal chipped on the lip of the can. The utensils begged for him to draw. Chase bent to collect each item and returned everything to the can.
As he stooped, a rustling of paper called out to him. Holding the can, he straightened, then pivoted to scan each wall in the room. He thought the sound came from there, from one of the hundreds of drawings tacked up in overlapping rows.
These were pictures he had made of trees. White, ghostly trees on dark sheets. For starters, Chase had drawn every species known to the Pacific Northwest: the cascara buckthorn, with its wavy-edged leaves and pronounced veins; the Pacific dogwood, covered like snow in the white bracts that framed its tiny flowers; the towering black cottonwood, its seeds hanging from strings like pearls on a woman's necklace; quaking aspen, the heart-shaped leaves fluttering. When he'd exhausted the region he'd moved on to other species of the country, the continent, the world.
None of his art appeared out of order. He rotated until his toes pointed once again at the desk. Chase lowered the soup can to place it on the surface, but stopped. The black drawing pad that had been closed now lay open, a fresh slate.
This was highly unusual. Still holding the can, he pulled out his chair and sat. The Mi-Teintes pastel book was bound with wire at the top and contained sixteen sheets of 9 x 12 black textured paper. Each of these was separated by a translucent sheet of glassine. Chase stared at the exposed page. He heard the rhythm of the fan chain in the other bedroom.
At the top of the page a letter appeared, an A, as in the beginning of the alphabet, as in A is for alder or acacia or abele. The letter did not appear all at once, but as a tilting line that rose to the right, then fell down to the right, then was crossed in the middle, written by an invisible hand with an invisible pen.
Not a pen. A soft white wax. A china marker. Chase lifted his eyes to his shelves, seeking a flat Hershey's collector's tin with a hinged lid on the left side of the window. Bottom level, third from the left. He retrieved it and flipped open the top with one thumb. All nine of his markers were inside, in Sharpie, Dixon, Berol, and Sanford brands. What instrument was making these marks, and how?
On the paper, a new letter had appeared after the A, following a space. An l, lowercase, and then an o. Bold strokes, firm and authoritative. N. Chase sank back into his chair, candy tin in one hand and soup can in the other, mesmerized. G. The letters formed words and the words formed a phrase.
A longing fulfilled is
Familiarity came over Chase like sunshine, a comforting assurance that everything about to happen was good.
Chase set the containers next to the sketchbook, then lifted the page to see whether the words were being applied from the backside or through the desk. Nothing. On the front, the script continued to flow. He lowered the page and ran his fingers over the fresh words, which had taken on the texture of the paper. The silky wax and dry pulp were braille to Chase. His fingertips tingled.
A longing fulfilled is a tree of life.
At his bidding, an image from his mind became lifelike in the room. It was helpful for him to put the contents of his head out in front of him. And so he was able to see the figure of a Great Basin bristlecone pine tree—far too large for the room, impossibly large, and bent by the confining ceiling—leaning over the page, writing with one of its branches.
Chase did not evaluate why he had envisioned Pinus longaeva, because the words on the page demanded his attention. They were an adage he knew well, a passage from the Bible's book of Proverbs in the thirteenth chapter.
He picked up the broken white charcoal stick and made several broad strokes along the margin of the page. The strokes formed a shape: a complex trunk, wide and twisted like flame, a branch. He set the charcoal in the soup can and wiped his fingers on his red shorts and reached for the Graphitint pencil, which would give him finer detail than the charcoal. With this he created a cluster of needles. Many, many spiny needles in tight brush formations.
Trees lived and breathed and should not be made motionless on paper, and this had always presented some challenge to Chase. He lifted the notebook and let the page dangle. He shook it firmly one time, causing the sheet to buckle. The branches moved. The needles stayed erect. Chase was very pleased. He returned the book to the desk, then held the pencil above the proverb.
The majestic tree of life he intended to finish drawing vanished from his mind.
A longing fulfilled is a tree of life. Draw the longing, for time is short. Fill the heart, for days are full.
All he could see were words, and then the meaning of the words disappeared and all he could see were strokes. He saw the movements of a man's hand gripping a grease pencil and forming each symbol, the sweeping and swooping of lines, the tight angles, the free-flowing tails.
This was his father's handwriting.
Chase felt happy to see it. He turned the page over and waited for the bristlecone to reappear, waited for his father to write more.CHAPTER 2
The bluffs above the ocean were the winds' playground. Brisk breezes dashed in all directions and teased the twisted cypress trees. Tarnished clouds advanced low over the Oregonian coastline, bringing rain to challenge the late-morning sun. Where storm and sunlight met, shades of blue and gray shimmered.
While she waited for the artist who'd hired her, Promise leaned out over the weatherworn split-rail barrier separating her from the sharp drop to a narrow strip of sandy beach some forty feet below. The wood complained, and she retreated.
If she were the suicidal type, this would be a poetic time and place for dying. But she wasn't. Her life was going to end prematurely, there was no doubt about that in the mind of anyone who knew anything about her, but it would end only against her will, and only at the height of her fame.
Which was on its way. Soon. Very, very soon. She pleaded with whatever unseen force governed the world that this would be true, because her days were winding down with every turn of the earth.
For two weeks Promise had ignored the familiar heaviness creeping into her lungs, the declining pulse-ox numbers, the less productive chest-therapy sessions, the fatigue that hit her earlier in the day than usual. She knew as well as she knew her name that she was sick and wouldn't be able to avoid the hospital many more days. This didn't bode well for her plans. Auditions for the fall musical production—which two agents had just this morning promised to attend—were next week. It would take every antibiotic and home remedy known to man to keep her on her feet until then.
There were at least a dozen advantages to dying young, enough that Promise generally ignored the fate that shadowed her like a pesky black puppy. Feeding the needy animal was a waste of resources and didn't do a thing to solve the problem that most frightened her: dying before anyone really knew who she was. It wasn't that Promise wanted fame, exactly, but that she didn't want to be forgotten. Fame was a practical means to that end.
She coughed several times to loosen up her lungs and then lightly slapped her thigh in a perky beat and hummed to ward off the anxiety that crept up on her.
The teasing atmosphere of the sky turned mean. Her long hair snapped at her eyes and caught at the corners of her mouth. She pulled her woolly wrap tighter across her chest and thought about leaving, asking Zack Eddy to reschedule. On the bright side, he would have to work quickly, and she wasn't being paid by the hour. But her health deserved a hasty retreat. She'd give him five minutes.
Which was precisely when he arrived. The sound of a car door slamming turned her head. Behind her, in the lot at the end of a meandering downhill path, Zack had parked his economical Honda next to her flashy BMW Roadster, the only other vehicle at the park. His dyed black hair, gelled flat to his head like a slick beanie, didn't budge under the huffing sky.
He bowed into the trunk of his car, retrieved a bag on a long strap, and slung it over his shoulder, then locked up and hoofed it to the trail. He wore skinny jeans tucked into socks, skateboard shoes, and layers of T-shirts. No jacket, like a local. Truly, it was more blustery than chilly, though a reversal probably wouldn't have mattered to him. Zack's trademark trench coat was missing, and she thought, smiling, that she'd only seen him wear it indoors.
She shouted at him and waved. Her toes lifted her heels off the ground in a sort-of jump. Real, take-to-the-air jumping was something she avoided for energy-conservation reasons.
Zack responded with a slight hike of his chin.
She modeled in Zack's life-drawing class at the university for spending money to call her own, even though her wealthy parents gave her everything she asked for and even more that she didn't. But independence wasn't something they could buy on her behalf. Her tiny paycheck gave her the mental strength she needed to keep up with her career plans, short-lived though they might be.
Zack was the last student there she had come to know, but not because she hadn't made the same attempts to befriend him that she'd made with nearly everyone else.
She pegged him early on as intelligent but morose, willfully depressed because the concept of tortured genius was perennially trendy. The trench coat he usually wore had a suspicious, illicit smell. She imagined he wrote dark poetry in the bleakest hours of the night, after finishing shadowy and sinister charcoal drawings.
His first words to her, which he spoke after three months of silence, were a question: Will you pose for a painting I've got to finish? Finding his question sweet and boyish rather than spooky, she'd made him promise not to draw her bodily form in the context of anything like a coffin or a Goth castle or a medieval torture chamber. He answered this request with the most beautiful, genuine, happy laugh, giving her hope that his black moodiness was only a front.
"Been here long?" he said when he crested the hill, not even breathless. The climb had taken her fifteen slow minutes.
"Awhile. You don't happen to keep your long coat in your car, do you?"
"No, why?" He kept moving toward the wood fence. Looked out, looked down. Test-kicked the post for no apparent reason. A light shower of powdery dirt rained off the rail.
"Thought I might borrow it."
"If I had it, you could. That's what I call a drop."
"The higher the bluff, the better the vertigo."
There was no laugh to reward her joke this time. Zack withdrew an expensive-looking camera from his bag. He attached a lens that was probably capable of photographing Mars, then repeated the looking out, the looking down, this time through the digital display. Not what she had expected.
"This lighting is killer," he said.
"Where's your sketchbook?"
"With the trench coat." He directed the camera at her, took a step backward. "I liked what you were doing when I was coming up. Holding that shawl thing tight, chin back over your shoulder."
"Look, I'm sorry if I wasn't clear about this when we scheduled, Zack, but I don't do cameras."
Zack moved around her like an orbiting moon. "What do you mean, you don't do cameras? No, no. Keep your back to me."
Promise faced him in full. "No pictures."
"What?" The shutter clicked.
"Zack, I mean it."
His eyes rose above the massive lens. "Why? What did you think I'd be doing up here?"
"In this weather?"
"You called it," she said.
"I'm a painter."
"Painters make thumbnails. For reference."
"I take pictures for reference."
"I guess we both made some assumptions, then. Sorry about that."
Zack exhaled between thin lips and studied the morphing horizon. "What's your thing about pictures?"
"I can't control them."
"What?" He came closer and leaned in as if he was having trouble hearing. She smelled the alcohol in his hair gel.
Excerpted from The Promises She Keeps by ERIN HEALY. Copyright © 2010 Erin Healy. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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