A PROMISE TO REMEMBER
About the Book
Author Talk -- October 2007
Reading Group Guide
Andie Phelps could not put the brush to the canvas. The blue paint seemed wrong now on the sable bristles. Brightness could not cover the dark, the darkness was too strong. Just like her sorrow and pain. Brightness and light were nothing more than lies.
Still, Chad had asked this of her. This one thing. By accomplishing this task, she would honor her son's memory.
The chill of January came through the windows, opened because of the fumes. Andie inhaled deeply, filling her lungs with the smell of turpentine and oil paint. She'd need her Ionic Breeze because her husband, even more than most people, hated this smell. Not Andie. To her, it meant release and relief. Usually.
But not today.
Carefully, she touched the brush to canvas. Nothing but perfection would do, and she knew she didn't possess the talent. Still, she had to try. "This is for you, Chad."
Her hand shook and dropped away from the canvas. She slid her chair back.
Focus, Andie. You have to get through this. Once again she looked at the yellow paper beside her easel. At the top of the page, handwritten in blue ink were the words, Chad --- notes from last year's chairman. Then followed typewritten instructions, numbered one through twenty, detailing the proper procedures for conducting Climesdale Academy's Wash Your Car, Wax Your Board Scholarship Fundraiser. Number five --- Scan school logo onto posters and T-shirts for students --- had been crossed out. Beside it, in Chad's handwriting, Boring. Mom can paint something cool.
Two weeks ago, when she'd sketched the outline of grinning old-time convertibles and wagons loaded with surfboards, he had laughed. "How could anyone resist?" Chad, more than anyone she'd ever known, loved with complete abandon. Now she had failed him, and he was gone forever.
She looked at the dates written on the paper. The fundraiser was approaching fast. Time to get started. Chad, I don't think I can do this. She stared at the crown molding around the ceiling. God, help me. Help me.
Perhaps starting with a different color would help. And some surf tunes to change the mood. She crossed the room and pushed a button on her CD player. As Dick Dale and his surf guitar broke like a wave through the room, she selected another brush and dipped it into the sienna on her palette.
The old Woody at the front of the line began to take form, her wrist and fingers finding their own rhythm now. She had been away from it so long it surprised her how wonderful it felt. She realized again how much she missed painting.
The song switched. "Surfin' USA." Andie tapped her foot with the beat, until the Beach Boys sang the praises of Rincon Point. Chad's favorite surf spot.
Her eyes began to burn. She rubbed the left one with her shoulder and went to work on the convertible. She worked the red into the canvas. The brush slipped from her fingers and left a gash of red on the PT Cruiser's door.
An image of Chad floated before her. His pale face spattered with blood, his eyelids fluttering, his white lips whispering final words. "I love you, Mom. You're the greatest person I've ever known." A raspy breath, "Dad…I was on my way to get it back." Following quickly, came another memory --- his vacant eyes and lifeless form against stark white sheets in a room that smelled of antiseptic and pain.
Andie blinked and tried to turn her attention back to her work. That sight, those smells, would not go away. A drop of liquid splashed onto her thumb. She looked down at the fallen tear. Strange, she hadn't even felt them start this time. She wiped her cheeks with both hands, and as she did, the paintbrush rubbed against her left knuckles, leaving another wound of blood red in its path.
She screamed out in anguish, an agony she'd tried so hard to keep hidden these last days. "I'm sorry, Chad. I'm so sorry." She couldn't stand the sight of the red paint a moment longer. She threw the brush across the room, where it struck the picture window and splattered to the mahogany floor.
She swiped at her painting, the bright colors blending and cutting mournful gray across the canvas in four long streaks. Those eager, smiling vehicles could not pretend to be all right anymore. The cars were frauds and liars anyway. They weren't happy. Nothing could ever be happy again. Andie used both hands, wiping and mixing until the entire scene vanished into unrecognizable, unknowable darkness. A dark reflection of how she felt.
"What do you think you're doing?" Blair's voice was followed by the music clicking off. Andie had been so engrossed in her pain, she hadn't heard him enter the house. She didn't turn.
His footsteps paced toward her but did not stop, his shoulder brushing hers as he strode to the window, squatted, and picked up the brush, careful to hold it away from his gray suit.
He turned. "Andie, if this dries, it'll ruin the sealant we just put down."
He dropped the brush into a cup of turpentine with a splash and snatched a rag. After scrubbing for some time, he stood and wiped his hands on the cloth. "I got it off the floor, but it smeared on the window. You'll need a razor to get it all."
Andie looked at her husband's handsome face. The salt and pepper of his hair only added to the lightness in his blue eyes. Eyes whose spark now dulled when he looked at her.
He hung the rag over the edge of the utility sink. "What is this all about?"
She wiped her eyes and choked on the words. "The painting for the fundraiser."
He brought her a towel for her hands and leaned over for a closer inspection. "No wonder you're in such a state. What are you thinking? No one expects you to do this now."
"Chad wanted me to do it. It was important to him."
Blair knelt before her, his eyes suddenly soft. "Andie, Chad is gone." He stopped, swallowed hard. "Torturing yourself over projects at his school --- a school we no longer have a child attending --- is not going to change that. This isn't healthy. You've got to stop."
"Chad was chairman of the committee. His dream was to double last year's fundraising. The least I can do is try to help."
She wouldn't say the rest, but Chad's words still bounced through her memory. "I'm going to show them all --- just like Mom does with her cancer fundraiser every year."
"Oh, Sweetie." Blair wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close.
Andie sank into his arms. Sobs spilled forth, like a tube of paint bursting, splattering everything in its path.
Blair's arms trembled and she realized that he, too, was crying. Some time later, they pulled away from each other, tears spent. Blair's face was set in decision. "How much money did
the scholarship fund raise last year?"
"Twenty thousand dollars."
Blair lifted her chin with his fingers so that she was forced to meet his eyes. "Okay, here's what we're going to do. Tomorrow, I'll go to the school office and tell them that our family is donating forty-five thousand dollars to the scholarship fund. We'll do it in Chad's memory. How would that be?"
She looked back at the smeared scene on the canvas. "What about the painting?"
"That goes away. Things like this will only pull you down. We need to be strong and keep going. For Chad's sake."
Andie nodded. Chad would want her to keep going. "Okay. For Chad's sake." I'm sorry I let you down again, Chad.
* * *
Melanie Johnston placed the stack of mail on the frayed bedspread, then settled herself on the lumpy mattress. She sliced through the first envelope. The cream-colored card inside was embossed with a shining cross on a hillside and glossy doves flying in the sky above. She flipped it open, not bothering to read the poem of five or six verses. Why should she care what some poet thought about grief? She knew grief, lived it, and there was nothing poetic about it. She skipped instead to the handwritten message below, scrawled in blue ink.
Jeff's absence has left a hole in all our hearts. My greatest comfort is knowing I will see him again in heaven, someday. Please feel free to call or visit if you ever need to talk.
"Well, Mr. Sterling, it might give you comfort to think of seeing Jeff in heaven some day, but I want him here." She wanted to shred the note and mail it back to the man, but she knew his words mirrored Jeff's own beliefs. Besides, if she destroyed all the cards that said something similar, what would become of Jeff's memorial?
She looked at the length of twine she'd strung across his room. The middle sagged from the weight of so many cards.
Jeff would be so happy to see this. To see how his life affected so many others. He never understood how much everyone loved him. "Can you see this Jeff?"
The yellowed ceiling paint responded with silence.
Her gaze turned to the walls. Posters of sailboats with colorful sails puffed out like crescent moons, expansion bridges lit with thousands of white bulbs, and Harley Davidson motorcycles rolling past the ocean, filled every spare inch. Jeff had always been drawn to physics and mechanics. Now his dreams were gone like the puffs of wind pushing the sailboats.
Melanie sank back into her seat, intent on finishing her task before Sarah returned home from her sleepover with the youth group girls. Melanie had to admit, for a bunch of fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds, they had circled their wagons around Sarah, keeping her busy and supported. She was glad Sarah found a source of relief there, although she knew Sarah's wounds went deeper than her daughter would ever show.
Melanie strung up a second line, parallel with the first, and sat back down to her stack of envelopes. She didn't recognize the name on the return address.
Dear Mrs. Johnston,
At the bottom was blue computer printing, designed to look like a handwritten signature. What kind of jerk sent a card like this?
Are your funeral bills piling up? Do you need help fighting the legal establishment? We at Fraker, Fritz, and Krutenat offer full legal service to victims like you. Let us help you get the cash you deserve!
Don't delay, call today!
This time, she didn't restrain herself and tore the letter to bits. She threw the shreds in the trash and went on to the next.
Fifteen cards later, she picked up a taupe-colored envelope that felt heavy, almost like linen. There was no return address.
Dear Mrs. Johnston
Les Stewart. The name sounded vaguely familiar. Then she remembered the recent news story. He was some big-shot attorney from Los Angeles who had recently moved to Santa Barbara to retire. Why would he send her his phone number? His clients were movie stars and big business men.
I am sorry for your loss.
Melanie started to hang the note on the line, but it didn't honor Jeff in any way. She placed it back in its envelope and tossed it in the trash.
After she'd finished the complete stack, she walked into the kitchen, poured a strong cup of coffee, grabbed scissors, and sat down with the paper. Six days had passed since the crash. The articles were less frequent and less obvious now. She turned the pages over slowly, not wanting to miss anything.
There. A tiny article about Jeff's work tutoring underprivileged kids while attending college in San Luis Obispo. She lifted her scissors and began to cut, taking pains to be precise. She didn't want to miss one letter of a story about her son.
When she finished, she grabbed the scrapbook, which always sat in Jeff's empty chair at the table, and anchored the article inside, another page in his memory. She read it through once more, choking back a spasm of sobs when she read the quote of a boy Jeff had helped --- "He was the only one who cared." --- before closing the book, and returning it to its place.
Only then did she continue through the rest of the paper for anything else of interest. The story waited for her the back page. A half-page article, complete with photo, of the boy who had taken Jeff's life.
The muscles in her neck tightened so that breathing became difficult. She looked at the large headline beneath the photo. Phelps family donates $45,000 to scholarship fund in son's honor.
The coffee burned inside Melanie's stomach. How dare they? That family had no right to glorify their son. He killed Jeff. Jeff was the one who should be honored with a scholarship named for him. He was the one who was paying his own way through school, working part time and taking out loans. The Phelps kid probably never did a hard day's work in his life.
The article praised the Phelps family's generosity. Generosity. Generous enough to give their son a brand new BMW, while Jeff had worked to pay for his old clunker. Generous enough to make certain their son's car came equipped with all the best safety equipment. Maybe if Jeff'd had the benefit of such generosity he wouldn't have been crushed beyond recognition.
Melanie flung the paper against the wall. Things like this shouldn't be allowed to happen. People couldn't just act this way. Somebody should do something.
She would do something.
She walked back into Jeff's room. She dropped to her knees and fished through the trash until she found the taupe envelope. Her fingers trembled as she picked up the phone. She had a call to make.
Excerpted from A PROMISE TO REMEMBER © Copyright 2017 by Kathryn Cushman. Reprinted with permission by Bethany House. All rights reserved.
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