The Promise 


She’d nearly choked on it that night on the moonlit beach—the sharp, pungent smell of dark promises and fragile desperation. Now, the noxious aroma threaded through her hair as something tugged at the floral comforter covering her toes. Lila’s eyes flew open. Her heart thumped in her chest. No, you’re not here. You were supposed to forget.

 “Mommy, there’s something under my bed.” She could barely hear Brayden’s whisper above the wave of adrenaline that whooshed through her veins. Bad memories poured over her, fresh and as shocking as ice water.

This isn’t happening. It can’t be. Not after nine years of nothing.

Lila fought to keep her voice steady, for her son’s sake. “There’s nothing to be afraid of, sweetheart.” The lie was thick on her tongue.

Lila closed her eyes, attempting to lessen the sudden sting building behind them, but an image of her husband, water swollen and drained of color, painted the backs of her eyelids. She grabbed her hair and tugged hard, needing to feel something.

No. What she needed was to keep it together, to comfort Brayden.

Lila swung her legs off the mattress and pulled her sleep-heavy body to a seated position. She made out a tuft of perfect corn silk hair and the glitter of Brayden’s wide eyes in the dim. She extended a hand toward him, and the next thing she knew, her darling boy was wrapped around her forearm, his little body radiating heat, his heartbeat hammering against her skin. A jolt of regret careened through her chest. She gasped, sucking in air, and gagged on sulfur. She coughed twice into her free hand and switched to breathing through her mouth.

Lila glanced over her shoulder at Martin, wondering if she’d disturbed him. Her husband lay still, almost as still as that night on the sand, but here in their master bedroom, nearly a decade later, he breathed normally. In, out. In, out.

She thought of their time together—their first date, their wedding, Brayden’s birth, Emily’s birth, their grand renovation of this house. All the beautiful moments they’d accumulated together.

She’d had to save him, right?

Brayden gave her arm a jerk. She looked at him, at his frightened eyes and wrinkled pajamas, and wished she could start over.

Maybe then, she could save Brayden just as she’d saved Martin.

“Do you want to sleep in here tonight?”

Brayden nodded and inched closer. Lila reposed on her side as Brayden climbed into her arms and she pulled the comforter over them. As a child, she’d thought of blankets as shields against the things that go bump in the night; as an adult, she recognized the flimsiness of cotton and wishing.

Lila pulled Brayden tight against her trembling body, trying not to cry, knowing full well what was to come. Remembering with horrible clarity what she’d promised.

“Mommy, you’re hurting me.”

Lila loosened her grip, but only a little. Brayden wriggled in her arms until he found a comfortable position.

In the silence and stillness that followed, Lila began to doubt herself. Perhaps her anxiety was nothing but unwarranted paranoia. A horrible, waking nightmare. They’d fall asleep. They’d wake in the morning, tired but together.

But soon after Brayden’s breathing evened out, Lila heard a sound like wind through gnarled tree branches gusting through the hall. Sulfurous fumes swept underneath the bedroom door. The smell coated her like smoke, the air tearing jagged lines down her throat. Lila clamped a hand over her mouth and breathed shallowly into her palm.

When she heard the door creak open, she swallowed a scream. She wanted to fight, wanted to run—but she couldn’t move, fear unfurling a fine paralysis through her limbs.

She felt it enter the room and draw close to the bed. A suffocating presence of power and destruction. That horrible moment as you tumble down a flight of stairs. When you scorch the skin on your neck with a curling iron. When you raise a hand to strike your child out of anger.

“Why did you wait nine years?” Lila whispered. Tears skittered down her cheeks, warm as angry rain.

A promise is a promise, it hissed within her.

She saw Martin again, lying on the beach, seaweed wrapped around his ankles. If only she’d suggested they see a movie instead of going skinny dipping in the gulf. If only he’d been a stronger swimmer. If only she’d turned and ran to get help. If only the smell of sulfur didn’t rise out of the sea and offer something that seemed like salvation.

“I didn’t know,” Lila gasped, clutching Brayden to her.

They never do.