Mara Nightingale becomes Roz's first friend in Mills River. In spite of their many differences, the girls discover they have something in common that binds them together--both are hiding secrets. So they make a promise--"cross my heart and hope to die"--never to tell anyone else.
When danger stalks the Anthonys, Tillie exhibits unimaginable courage and selfless love in her determination to protect the family she has adopted as her own.
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Promises To Keep
By Ann Tatlock
Bethany House PublishersCopyright © 2011 Ann Tatlock
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWe hadn't lived in the house on McDowell Street for even a week when we found a stranger on the porch, reading the morning paper. Wally saw her first, since it was his job to fetch the newspaper from the low-lying branches of the blue spruce, where the paper boy always tossed it. I was in the kitchen setting the table, and from there I could see Wally—tall and lanky and bare-chested in the summer heat—move down the hall toward the front door. He was grumbling about the rain as the soles of his feet slapped against the hardwood floor. He reached for the doorknob, then stopped abruptly. In the next moment he hollered back toward the kitchen, "Mom, there's an old lady out on the porch."
Mom was frying bacon at the stove. She jabbed at the sizzling pan with a spatula and hollered back, "What's she want? Is she selling something?"
"I don't think so," Wally said. "She's just sitting there reading the paper."
"Well, yeah. I think it's our paper."
"What now?" Mom muttered as she moved the frying pan off the burner and untied her apron. When she turned around, I saw the flash of fear in her eyes. It was a look I was used to; it showed up on Mom's face whenever she didn't know what was coming next, which happened a lot in our old house in Minnesota. But not because of strangers.
Mom laid the apron over a chair, smoothed back her blond hair, and ran the palms of her hands over the wrinkles in her housedress. At the same time she tried to smooth the wrinkles in her brow enough to look confident. I followed her from the kitchen to the front door, where Wally stood so close to the window the tip of his nose touched the glass. "Can you believe it?" he said quietly. "She's just sitting there like she owns the place or something."
Mom raised one hand to her lips in quiet hesitation. Meanwhile, I slipped to the living room window and peered out from behind the curtain, finding myself only inches from our uninvited guest. At first glance she was one huge floral-print dress straining the straps of the folding lawn chair on the porch. Her legs were propped up on the railing, and her bulky black tie shoes dangled like dead weight over the lilac bush below. I couldn't see much of her face, just a small slice of fleshy cheek and the bulbous end of a generous nose, a pair of gray-rimmed glasses and a mass of white hair knotted at the back of her head. She was reading the Sunday comics, and something must have tickled her because she laughed out loud.
That howl of glee sent enough of a jolt through Mom to get her going. She gently pulled Wally away from the door and swung it open. She pushed open the screen door and stepped outside. I saw the old woman's head bob once, as though to acknowledge Mom's presence.
"Can I help you?" Mom asked. Her voice was strained, the way it sounded when she was trying not to yell at one of us kids. She waited a few seconds. Then, a little more exasperated, she repeated, "Can I help you with something?"
The stranger folded the paper and settled it in her lap. "No, dear, I don't think so." The corner of her mouth turned up in a small smile. "But thank you just the same."
Mom stiffened at that, and all her features seemed to move toward the center of her face. "Well," she said, "may I ask what you're doing on my porch?"
"Just sitting awhile," the old woman said, as though she'd been found passing the time of day on a public bench. "Anyway," she went on, "it's not your porch. It's mine."
"Uh-oh," Wally whispered in my direction. "She's one of those crazies. You'd better go keep an eye on Valerie."
But I didn't want to go keep an eye on Valerie. I wanted to stay right where I was and watch Mom talk with the crazy lady.
Mom looked off toward the street like she was hoping someone would walk by and help her, but it was early Sunday morning and the streets were quiet, save for one lone soot-colored cat slinking along the sidewalk in the misty rain.
Finally Mom turned back to the stranger and said, "I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to leave, and if you don't, I will call the police."
The old lady pulled her feet off the railing, and I thought maybe she was going to stand up and leave, but she didn't. Instead, she said quietly, "Well now, I wish you wouldn't do that."
"You don't give me any choice. You're trespassing on private property."
"I might say the same for you."
Mom's eyes widened. "What do you mean by that?"
"The law might say you own this house, but it'll always be mine."
"Mom," Wally hollered though the screen, "you want me to call the cops?"
Mom latched her hands together at her waist and squeezed her fingers together. "Not yet, Wally. Just hold on." To the woman, she said, "I want to give you the chance to leave peacefully."
The old woman wasn't looking at Mom anymore. Now she was looking out at the street, but I had the feeling she wasn't seeing the street but something else altogether.
When she spoke, her voice was low and even. "My husband built this house for me in 1917. Built it with his own hands. And you see these two hands here?"
The woman held up her hands, large as any man's. Mom nodded reluctantly.
"These hands helped him. I laid flooring, plastered tile, painted the rooms, hung wallpaper. We built this place together, Ross and I."
A small muscle worked in Mom's jaw. "I see."
"I came here as a bride, twenty years old. Had my babies here. Lived here all my married life. Watched my husband die in our bedroom upstairs."
"Oh, great," Wally said, glancing at me. "Some old guy croaked upstairs."
Though he said it loud enough for the woman to hear, she ignored him and kept on talking. "My heart is in every piece of wood and every nail. For that matter, so is my sweat. I believe they call that sweat equity. There's so much of me in this house, you'll never get it out. You might live here now, but this house—it'll always belong to me."
Mom was chewing her lower lip by now, and her eyes were small. Her knuckles had turned white because she was squeezing her hands together so hard. I knew exactly what she was thinking. I knew she was thinking about our old life in Minneapolis and how this place in Mills River, Illinois, was our new life, and she may have even been thinking of those words she said to me that first night after we moved in: "We're safe now, Roz. We don't have to be afraid anymore." She had worked and planned for a long time, until finally, with the help of her father, Grandpa Lehman, she'd got us out of Minnesota and away from Daddy. And now, only days into our new life, some crazy woman showed up making trouble.
"I lived here fifty years," she went on. "Fifty years this place was mine until I slipped on some ice last January and broke my hip. I landed in the hospital, and while I was down and out, the boys saw their chance. Maybe not Lyle so much, but Johnny and Paul ..."
She shook her head. "Those rascals saw their chance. I told Ross to leave the house to me alone and not divide it up four ways between me and the boys, because I knew what they'd do with it eventually. Soon as Ross died they started talking about selling the place, saying I shouldn't be living here by myself. My falling on the ice seemed to prove their point, and from the hospital I was taken to—"
Her sentence hung unfinished as she pulled herself up from the chair. The newspaper dropped from her lap to the porch. Both she and Mom stared out at the street as a Pontiac station wagon—brown with a white roof, wings reaching back toward the taillights— coasted up to the front of the house and parked. A short stocky man in a raincoat and fedora stepped out of the car and made his way up the sidewalk. "I thought I'd find you here, Mother," he said, approaching the porch steps.
"What'd you expect, Johnny?" She drew herself up straighter and lifted her chin.
"This is my home. Where else should I be?"
"This isn't your home anymore," he said, coming right up onto the porch. He looked at Mom and took off his wet hat in a gesture of respect. "Beg your pardon, ma'am," he said. "I'm very sorry about this. I've come to take Mother back to the home."
"The home?" Mom asked.
"St. Claire's Home for the Aged."
"I'm sorry, I— We're new in town. I—"
"I don't belong in any nursing home," the old woman yelled, taking a step backward. "My hip has healed, and I'm as strong as I've ever been."
The man held out his hand. "Now, Mother—"
"You defied me, Johnny Monroe. My last wish was to die in this house—"
"Now, Mother, don't make trouble. We did what we thought was best—"
"And I aim to die in this house, whether you like it or not!"
"Oh, great," Wally said again with another glance at me. I shivered.
The man turned back to Mom. "I'm very sorry," he repeated. "I'll see to it this doesn't happen again. Come on, Mother. Let's go without making a scene."
"No one was making a scene until you came along," the old woman said.
Mom stepped to the door and nodded toward me. "Roz, go get Valerie out of her crib. Take her to the kitchen and give her some cereal."
For the first time I realized Valerie was crying and had probably been crying for several minutes. But I didn't go to her. I couldn't take my eyes off the old woman and her son. One moment they were exchanging heated words and the next he had his arm around her shoulder and she was allowing him to lead her toward the porch steps.
Mom, to my surprise, unlaced her fingers and laid one hand gently on the old woman's arm. "Wait," she said.
The two strangers stopped and looked at Mom expectantly. "I—" Mom shook her head. She looked flustered. "What's your name?"
The old woman's eyes seemed to travel all over Mom's face, looking for a place to rest. Finally she said, "My name is Tillie Monroe." She said it with dignity, as though the name itself commanded respect.
Mom nodded slightly. "Well, Mrs. Monroe, I-I'm very sorry. Really I am."
For a moment no one spoke. The old woman's lips trembled, but she didn't have any words for Mom in response. Then Johnny Monroe lifted his hat once again, bid
Mom a good day, and led Tillie Monroe down the steps.
Mom, Wally, and I watched as the two of them walked together in the drizzling rain toward the car.
Mom stepped into the house, shut the door, and locked it. She looked at Wally and then at me. For some reason Valerie had stopped crying, and the house was quiet. "Well," Mom said, "it's a shame, but I'm sure her children knew what they were doing when they put her in the home. I don't think this will happen again. Let's go eat breakfast. Roz, go get Val up and get her ready to eat."
Wally looked out the window. "You still want the paper, Mom?" From where we stood, we could see that a gust of wind had picked it up and scattered it in wet clumps across the yard.
"I guess we can do without the paper today," she said. "Never much good news anyway, is there?" She offered Wally a tiny smile and moved down the hall to the kitchen.
I lingered a moment and watched as the station wagon pulled away from the curb. The strange woman's profile was framed in the passenger window, and for a moment I almost felt sorry for the old lady who was being hauled back to the home against her will. It seemed a sad way to finish up a life.
"Roz," Mom called from the kitchen, "I'm waiting on you to get Valerie. Breakfast is ready."
"Can you believe our luck?" Wally said as he ambled down the hallway, his fists thrust deep in the pockets of his shorts. "We move into the one house in town where some crazy old lady wants to come and die."
"Never mind, Wally," Mom said. "She's gone now, and I'm sure the nursing home will take extra precautions so she doesn't get out again."
Extra precautions or no, I had a feeling we hadn't seen the last of Tillie Monroe.
Excerpted from Promises To Keep by Ann Tatlock Copyright © 2011 by Ann Tatlock. Excerpted by permission of Bethany House Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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