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Columbia College Chicago
Promise
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Promise

By Herrera

My finger drags down the cold page. His name is there. All the other names flitter away. A gasp chokes my throat. He's gone. Forever, he'll never come back. Tears stream down my face. Everything around me goes cold. People shove and nudge into me trying to see the list. Hoping and praying they don't recognize any names. This is the list of those of us who didn't make it. He didn't make it. The air runs out of my lungs. The noise around me buzzes out. There isn't a way to live without him. He told me before we ever even left.

I grab what little I still have, which consists of two oversize dresses, worn out shoes, and an empty promise. It's an empty promise of a perfect life with him. My feet drag across the hard floor of the train station; engines fire up, steam pours from unknown locations, women wave handkerchiefs to leaving loved ones, men wave their hats to departing beauties, and I see none of this. For me there isn't a handsome man with a hat. There's nothing. I don't have anywhere to go once I leave here. No family that I know of, no home, no one and nothing. Even my hair is gone. They shaved it off at the camp. January in Germany is really too frostbitten to sleep outside, but I don't have money or a bed to borrow. A cold night won't kill me. There's a park close by if they haven't destroyed it during my absence.

A warm hand grabs my arm, pulling me back. Arms surround me, catching me urgently. Black, scratchy wool coddles my face. The familiar smell of cold and clove envelopes me in memories of safety. It's Phillip. I huddle in, glad to see someone survived. He draws away, looking over me. He's crying.

"My mom. She told me to go watch and check the lists. I saw," his voice stutters and flitters away with the trains, his eyes scurry away from my gaze.

"I know. I saw, too. He broke his promise, Phil." Tears well in my eyes again. Phil catches me close again. My legs give out and my sobs flood through the station. Pain rips through me; my head, heart, my whole being is being torn apart by the seams. Tears keep falling, he's gone. He's gone forever. He'll never come back. The pain might never leave.

*

The sun shines through a small, dusty window. Soft warmth feels nice against my swollen eyes. Phillip is slouched in a chair to my side; he must have kept watch though the night. Years of paranoia aren't easily lost. His black wool coat piles high on the scratched and battered oak table. There are holes in the elbows and pockets. Everything is tired, dirty. It seems that things won't brighten as soon as so many of us hoped.Phil yawns, slowly waking himself up.Dark purple bags sit under his eyes.

My memory of him and the reality of who sits in front of me clash within my mind. The boy who used to laugh, play, smile, and dance along my side has now warped into a very jaded man. Small reminders of the past still remain, though. His black buoyant curls haven't changed. Neither have his deep hazel eyes that used to make all the neighborhood girls swoon. Deep down, the boy that I left behind still remains. Rubbing his hands along his pants, he looks towards me. A soft growl contracts in my belly.

"I suppose you're hungry?" His old wry smile blankets his lips, the same as before.

"I suppose." I smile back towards my friend. I've missed him. My stomach continues to protest, it hasn't had a real meal in months.

He gets up from the chair, dragging his feet into the kitchen. Barren cupboards squeak. He doesn't have any food. Watching him ransack the empty shelves, I realize just how much weight he has lost over time. All bones, just like me. Smiling, he reaches into the furthest corner, pulling out bills and white ration coupons.

"I met a man who forged coupons, I wanted to be ready for whoever came home." His bright smile doesn't help me forget that he didn't come home. It doesn't help me forget that he's gone forever. Feeling an ache in my chest, I force a smile towards Phil. I grab the dress at the foot of the bed and excuse myself to change. Once alone my sobs begin again, and once again, I can't seem to find a way to stop them.

*

With the dress and a borrowed coat hanging off my boney frame, Phil takes me to a small shop down the street. The solid door opens to a dark, antiquated store. Shelves are bare except a thick layer of dust. We hear the plaintive squeaks of mice occasionally from the corners, and from small holes in the shelving. A portly man stands behind the counter. His gut bulges through his chocolate corduroy vest. His glasses sit low on his nose; beady eyes stare at Phil above the thick lenses. Phil walks up to the counter, offering his left hand with one dark eyebrow raised. The corners of the fat man's mouth twist into a warm smile as he grabs Phil's hand shaking it violently up and down. Their light chuckles float through the air. The fat man goes into the back area for a few minutes. Silence hangs between Phil and me. He comes closer, grabbing my hand with a gentle squeeze of reassurance.

"I have an idea." His hazel eyes stay focused on my hand in his, "Let's escape. We don't have to stay here in Germany. This country did horrible things to you and your family. We can get documents; we can become French or British! There isn't a future for either of us here. Please, let me take you away." His grip on my hand gets tighter, his words louder. He's begging for a sign from me, anything to help him understand how I feel. But even I don't understand how I feel. It's never mattered before.

"Where could we even go? You say we can get papers but what if they know they're fake? I don't want to go back into a prison, Phil." Hot tears burn down my cheeks. I can't be held captive anymore. "And what about him? I know he's gone but he wouldn't want this. He loved this country, he loved me." Phil's warm hands hold the side of my face, and each thumb wipes away my tears.

"But he didn't, Reina. He didn't take care of you; I had to watch him torture you, breaking your heart and spirit time after time. I watched big purple bruises warp you beauty. I watched his drunken affairs. He's tricked you Reina. He warped your mind to think that you can't live without him when you deserve so much more. It took every single bit of strength I had not to hit him across the face whenever he was with you. You can't romanticize the past forever. Let me take you to France, or Britain, or even America! We'll become different people and we can start over again." His face is slick with tears as well now, and his voice is barely more than a whisper. He's right, Phil has always been right. There isn't anything for us here. He's never left my side, so it's my turn now.

"Okay, I'll go with you." A smile that I haven't seen in a very long time dances across his lips. In fact, I know the last time I saw this smile was. It was when we were children and my father came up to the porch where we were sitting together sharing an apple. He knelt down and asked Phil to always look after me. He told Phil that he didn't want a mean boy to try and take me away. My father laughed and asked me if I was ever going to leave him and get married. I told him, "I won't be far when I get married! We'll be right next door!" He asked how I knew this. I looked towards Phil, grabbed his hand and said, "Well, because me and Phil will get married someday and it wouldn't make sense for us to be away from our family!" My father chuckled again and went inside to my mother. But Phil sat there next to me smiling the same foolish, beautiful smile and holding my hand until the sun went down and his own mother called him in for supper. When he let go of my hand his smile faded and he sulked up the stairs to his apartment. I always thought that the smile he showed to me just once was the most beautiful smile in the entire world.

Now Phil stands in front of me, his dark curls still tight and bouncy, eyes still a bewitching hazel, smiling the most beautiful smile in the world. We aren't seven anymore on the front porch of the apartment complex we grew up in. Now we're in our twenties, jaded by the war that just ended; a war that tore us apart just to bring us back together. My father's gone, along with so much of my family, and his mother isn't calling him to supper anytime soon.

The portly man returns and coughs, waving papers towards the two of us. In the stack is two passports, birth certificates, work history, everything we need to establish ourselves anywhere we go.

"To America," my voice rings out clear in the dusty store. The man behind the counter grabs a separate stack of papers and hands both of us our new lives. Glen and Aubrey. A young married couple. Glen works as a teacher, Aubrey is a nurse. The man hands us two train tickets and a shiny red apple.

"Good luck, you two." Motioning to me, he grabs my hand and leads me to the back of his shop. "Here, take these." He hands me a small bag telling me to change before I leave.

A dress, wig, and shoes fill the small blue bag. Seeing the wig my hand goes to my head. No hair. I put it on quickly; I haven't had hair in months and the person in the mirror looks so different from who I used to be. Tired and thin as a stick. I don't look like a girl anymore. Before letting me leave the back room he throws me two golden rings. One a plain gold band, the other is a thinner gold band with a clear stone rising from the center. With wide eyes my face turns towards the man. "It is," his clear voice rings out honestly. Phil's face is still lit up as he takes my hand and we hurry down the street towards the train station.

*

Phil and I have the papers and tickets. Our hands show gleaming gold wedding rings. We board the train without problems; Germany rushes past us through the clear window of our seats. Phil is still holding my hand with my favorite smile across his lips. I toss the shiny red apple towards him; we share it just like before. Some how everything is okay. The fat man with beady eyes and a light chuckle saved our lives.

*

"And it's a good thing he did! Without that fat bastard neither of you would be here!" the sun shines in the southern summer sky. Phil sits next to me on the porch our great grandchildren on the floor looking up at me with such amazement.

"Grandma! Grandma! Did all that really happen?" Emma's eyes are wide with excitement. She's seven years old. She has Phil's hazel eyes and hears the tale every Saturday when she comes over but always asks if it's real. Phil chuckles at my side; his hand is still in mine after all these years.

"Of course it's real! Just because I'm 95 years old doesn't mean all I say is gibberish! That's how grandpa and I were married," the warm southern breeze floats through the porch. Phil's white curls sway like tree branches in the soft summer morning. Emma sits and sways along with the morning breeze. Jacob, the little neighbor boy, sways along with her as they share a shiny green apple. Paul, her 9-year-old big brother keeps a careful eye on Jacob's hand, straying dangerously close to Emma's. Phil finally notices and leans in close.

"Don't they remind you of us all those years ago?" his whispers, and our soft chuckles float away in the breeze.

"What did Papa say?" Emma and Jacob are tittering on the edge of excitement.

"He said that if you all don't finish weeding we're just going to have to keep our nickels to ourselves!"

Emma and Jacob spring into action. They run hand in hand to the small garden plot we delegated them to weed, Emma's dark ponytail whipping Jacob's face every time she turns her head. Jacob barely even notices. Paul's eyes narrow on Jacob as Jacob smiles blissfully like a fool. Phil grabs Paul's shoulder with a smile.

"Let them be. Jacob is a good kid. He takes care of Emma. You'll always be her brother Paul, but Emma will have other boys in her life too," Paul nods but doesn't seem too thrilled.

Grabbing my hand, we go into the little green house we bought together so long ago to start lunch for the kids.

"That's how you used to smile."

"No, you're wrong. I never smiled as foolish as Jacob." His laughter floats around the room.

"Oh yes, don't even try to fool yourself, Phillip. I still catch you smiling that foolishly sometimes." Crossing the room to the window, my own smile widens. Emma and Jacob are still sharing the apple while they weed. "Do you think they'll end up like us?" Emma grabs Jacob's hand outside under the southern sun. Paul immediately sits in between them, glaring coldly at Jacob with sharp brown eyes.

"I don't know. Should I present him with the protection oath?" he stands next to me at the window.

"I wouldn't call it an oath. But yes, you were that age when you swore to protect me, we might as well follow suit. We're running out of time ourselves," a slight melancholy feeling knots my stomach.

"Darling, don't be dramatic. We have all of eternity left. No matter what happens, we'll be fine. I'll give him the talk when Paul leaves for Will's house. I am so glad I didn't have to deal with an older brother." We laugh and laugh, letting the warm air surround us in our amusement. He grabs a shiny red apple and takes the first bite. "Just like old times."

I take the second bite and pass it back to him. "Just like old times," I agree, with a smile as foolish as Jacob's and eyes as bright as Emma's.