Jeff Abbott: Promises of Home

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Jeff Abbott Promises of Home
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    Promises of Home
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Jeff Abbott

Promises of Home

Prologue:12 years ago

Forgive these wild and wandering cries,

Confusions of a wasted youth;

Forgive them, where they fail in truth,

And in thy wisdom make me wise.

-Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam

“What you fellows don’t understand,” Trey Slocum growled, a cigarette clenched between his teeth, “is that you got to stare death in the face to be a real man.” The rest of us soon-to-be seventh-graders weren’t quite so sure; outside, the wind howled fiercely, rattling the tree house and moaning with the promise of tragedy. I knelt on the rough wooden floorboards and risked being called a yellow-liver sissy by peeking out the small, open window.

“What’s wrong, Jordy, you got to see if the bad ol’ storm’s comin’?” Trey jeered, kicking my sneakers with his muddy cowboy boots. He was awful proud of those boots, always claiming they were hand-tooled leather from his uncle over in Giddings. I had a half a mind to tear one off his foot, throw it into the storm, and let him fetch it. “My daddy says hurricanes are real bad news. They ain’t no ladies,” Little Ed Dickensheets said, trying to keep a note of panic out of his voice. He’d been whining since birth. “Shut up, Dick-in-Mouth,” Clevey Shivers teased, and then, of course, Little Ed was all over Clevey, pummeling him with fists. Clevey outweighed Little Ed by about twenty pounds, so he just rolled on the tree-house floor as Little Ed tried to inflict damage, laughing in counterpoint to the lament of the wind. Little Ed exhausted himself soon enough and gave up, rolling off Clevey, honor served by his effort. Clevey yawned, his normally red face a little more florid. I believed Little Ed’s daddy, Big Ed, was a wise man. Clouds blackened the sky above the Colorado River and the wind shrieked through the tree branches like a vengeful banshee. They called the storm Althea on the TV news, and she was bearing down on Central Texas like a mother who, sick and tired of calling you home for supper, brandished a hickory switch in her hand. “She was a hurricane only when she hit the coast,” Trey said knowingly. “She done spent herself hitting Corpus Christi. They start dyin’ over land. She’s just a tropical storm now.” Trey always spoke in this way, as if the secrets of the universe had been revealed to him and to no one else. We didn’t much challenge him on it because he was too cool for words. “My mama’s gonna whip me good for staying out in this,” Junebug Moncrief fretted, scratching his brown bur of hair. I wouldn’t be worried about his mama if I were him; I always thought his daddy was a sight meaner. My own daddy wasn’t going to be too pleased about my afternoon, either. Trey pushed his black cowboy hat back and surveyed us sitting around him, scowling, his night-dark eyes ranging across each of us: me, Junebug, tanned Little Ed, red-haired Clevey, and blond and bespectacled Davis Foradory, who sat placidly playing solitaire, smoking a menthol cigarette, and ignoring the rest of us. “Y’all are just a bunch of little chickenshits,” Trey snorted. “Y’all were all gung-ho to sit out this hurricane in the tree house and swear to be blood brothers in the very face of death itself, and now y’all just want to run home and cry against your mamas aprons.” The tree creaked loudly as the wind surged, and Little Ed’s brown eyes widened, as though that crying-in-the-apron suggestion wasn’t a bad one at all. I patted him on the shoulder; Little Ed Dickensheets truly was the littlest of us, still eleven and scrawny for his age. We picked on him but didn’t let anyone else. Plus, with that surname of his, he needed our protection. Davis Foradory pushed up his glasses and cut his playing cards in the slow, measured manner in which he did all things. “They’re going to be looking for us, you numbnuts. We probably got another ten minutes left till one of y’all’s mamas calls my mamaw and she comes out here to see if this is where we’re at.” The tree house sat near the Colorado River, in the middle of the live oaks and loblolly pines that gave way to Foradory pastureland. Davis lived on the farm with his grandmother Foradory, who was a right sweet old lady, and his grandfather (who everyone knew had lost his mind and never went looking for it). The tree house groaned, the way I’d imagined a woman in heat did. I could feel the floor swaying against my butt, the nose-wrinkling smell of wet wood pervading the room. “You could find a turd in a bowl of ice cream, Four Door.” Trey shook his head at Davis’s pessimism and finished off his cigarette. “Hey, Jordy, give me another of those, will you?” I tossed him the pack after I took one for myself. Junebug, sitting next to me by the open window, looked surprised but didn’t comment. Trey smiled and tossed me the matches. “Look at young master Jordan, trying to become a man.” Trey laughed as I lit up and took a tentative puff. I’d only smoked a couple of times before; I wasn’t yet a hard-core smoker like Trey or Davis. I figured Daddy’d whip me good for venturing into this storm; I might as well indulge in the few vices available to me as a twelve-year-old. I coughed and Trey laughed again. Junebug, who did not approve of cigarettes, looked away from me. I saw Trey’s eyes watching me and Junebug, as though some contest for my lungs was being waged. It had seemed a good idea, riding out the storm together; I’d gotten worked up with excitement sitting around the house that still summer day, watching the grayish-white curls of Althea’s strange clouds inch across the sky, knowing that they were from some fierce faraway tempest that might touch or spare us. No telling. Although Mirabeau was a few hours inland, Daddy and Mama stayed by the TV and radio nearly all day. There was talk of evacuations of Corpus Christi and Galveston; talk of the hurricane in 1900 that had leveled Galveston and killed six thousand people; talk of earlier, deadly Texas ladies: Carta, Beulah, and Celia; and talk of flooding in the inland towns on the Texas rivers. Mirabeau sat in a gentle bend of the Colorado, and we’d all been watching the skies, waiting for the torrents that must come if Althea hit the coast at an unkind angle. Trey had stopped by while I sat on my front porch, idly tossing a softball in the air. With little preamble he proposed camping through the storm in the old Foradory tree house we used for smoking, cussing, and bragging. “Are you crazy? Sit out a hurricane in a tree house?” “Shoot, she’ll be all broke up by the time she gets here, if she ever shows up. Not much more than a rainstorm, I reckon. Get Junebug and Clevey and Davis. It’ll be cool. We can brag about it in school.” Boasting was Trey’s butter on the bread of life. “If it ain’t gonna be so bad, then we won’t have too much to brag about,” I pointed out. Although the suggestion did have an edgy appeal, I wasn’t about to jump into another one of Trey’s harebrained schemes. I’d gotten my britches warmed good for the last one: fashioning a swing rope on the bridge into town that spanned the Colorado. Trey deliberated, pushing back his cowboy hat. He dressed just like a grown man did; his daddy tended horses out at Hart Quadlander’s place and Trey felt it necessary to dress exactly like his father: Western shirt, faded jeans, and boots that were cared for like a rich woman’s skin. “If the storm ain’t shit, then we just hang out. But”-and the devil glinted in his dark Cherokee eyes-“if it is, then we can say we stared down death.” I let the softball rest in my hand. Trey would do any crazy stunt that popped into his brain; if reason was ink, he couldn’t dot an i. But he knew that I was the barometer of what would impress our peers; if I thought the notion was worthwhile, he’d pursue it with relentless vigor. But this idea sounded a little insane, like perching on the tracks of the approaching train and taking your own sweet time to get out of harm’s way. “I don’t know, Trey.” “Look, Jordy,” he said, in a caressing voice he’d later use on women with much success, “it’ll be the last great adventure of the summer. We’ll all be trapped in school soon enough, and man, that’ll be real death. Let’s do it. We haven’t had a storm like this come in ages. Next time one this big comes, we’ll be long in the tooth.” “Less we get killed today.” I tossed the softball back up into the air. He shrugged. “Okay, Jordy. The rest of us’ll sit up in the tree and watch you swim with the other losers when the floodwaters come.” I frowned at him, the ball bouncing in my hand. I still hadn’t figured out why Trey’d decided last year to be my friend. Since birth, I’d hung around with Junebug and Davis and Clevey and Little Ed. Trey was too cool for us regular kids, what with his calmly appraising eyes, loner’s swagger, and quick-fisted way of dealing with anyone who crossed him. But he’d taken to me and then to the others. I wasn’t sure Davis and Junebug were pleased about my newest friend, but Trey finally beguiled them. A natural air of danger surrounded Trey that other boys couldn’t resist. He made Mirabeau less boring, an achievement of no small value. My mother came out on the porch, drying damp hands on her slim jean-clad hips. As always, Trey was at his most gentlemanly with her, tipping his hat like she was a Houston debutante come to call. “Mornin’, Miz Poteet. I was just tellin’ Jordan here that we’re fixin’ to get us some blowin’ tonight.” My mother, with her blonde hair, high cheeks, and penetrating green eyes, was the prettiest of all my friends’ mamas. And the smartest and the funniest. I took great pride in her. She came up behind me, leaning against the back of the wicker chair. She liked Trey, but I didn’t think she was ever fooled by his wiles; he was trouble, pure and simple. “Good afternoon, Trey. I hope y’all’ve got your horses set to weather the storm.” “Yas’m, we do. Daddy and Mr. Quadlander are gonna take good care of them.” “And won’t you be helping them?” Mama asked, her voice wry. It was a practiced game between them-her giving him his chance for a honeyed explanation. Trey posed, the poster child for earnestness, with his cowboy hat held over his innocent heart and a dark cowlick standing at bent attention. “Ah, no, ma’am. See, I’m going to be out courtin’ Miss Althea so she don’t blow any of us away.” He was only a boy, but already he had the sparkling eye of a dedicated flirt. Mama laughed, a sweet musical tinkle that sounded more like a young girl’s than a mother’s. “I’ll certainly sleep better knowing that you’re protecting us all. Jordan, I’m going to make lunch now. Trey, would you like to stay and eat ham sandwiches with us?” “No, thank you, ma’am.” Trey smiled. It was hard to believe the number of cuss words he’d taught me when he put on his proper talk. “I got to go buy Miss Althea some candy and flowers.” Mama laughed, ruffled my hair (knowing full well it would mortify me in front of Trey), and said, “Come eat in a few minutes, Jordan. Trey, if your Miss Althea gives you grief and you and your daddy run short of water or food, y’all come see me, okay?” “Yes, ma’am.” Trey nodded with respect as Mama went back inside. He shook his head. “Jesus, Jordan, your mama sure is pretty.” I smiled that he thought Mama was pretty, but stopped when I saw the wistful look on Trey’s face. He didn’t even have a mama. (“Cancer took her” was the only explanation he ever offered.) “They said on the radio the storm’s hittin’ Corpus right now.” Trey continued his gentle cajole. “That means she’ll be here in a few hours. Look, that tree house has been there for twenty years. It’s as solid as a rock. We’ll meet there at four o’clock, okay?” I hated to disappoint him, but I still wasn’t keen on his plan. “This idea doesn’t sound too swift.” He shook his head. “Stare it in the face, Jordy. You don’t want to be the only chickenshit that doesn’t show up.” And with a smirk, he straightened his black cowboy hat and sauntered down the street. Of course I’d shown up. Boys do foolish things, and my friends and I were determined to be junior achievers in the idiot division. I’d told Mama I was going to wait out the storm at Junebug’s and he’d told his mama he was staying with me. Mama’d fretted, but let me go, trusting me not to be stupid. The others told similar lies, and that’s how I found myself crouching in a shuddering tree house, the illicit taste of smoke in my mouth, staring across the dimness at Trey, the burning ember of the cigarette dangling between his fingers. Rain blew in with increasing force. Davis carefully stashed away his cards, stretched out his long legs (he’d hit his growth spurt first), and fiddled with the transistor radio. “Hey, put on some music,” Trey demanded. “Some Buck Owens, maybe.” “I’m trying to find the station in Bavary, see what they say about the storm,” Davis said. “If their tower’s down, we’re gettin’ the hell out of this tree,” Junebug said, sounding like an old man. Davis played gently with the controls. Garbled static was all he could summon. The Bavary station seemed to have trouble deciding whether or not it’d stay on the air. “When do you think the eye’ll get here?” Little Ed asked quietly. “This is the eye, Little Ed,” Trey teased. “Once that other side of the storm hits, this tree house’ll probably land in Oz.” “Yeah, Little Ed, and you can be a Munchkin.” Clevey laughed. Little Ed frowned. “Yeah, and you can be one of those butt-ugly flying monkeys, Heavey.” Clevey didn’t care much for that particular nickname (bestowed when he’d gotten a real sudden case of stomach flu in second grade and blew his cookies all over Miss Lavinia Duchamp’s school desk while trying to get permission from the old battle-ax to run to the bathroom). He started pummeling Little Ed, but Junebug forced them apart. He was always our peacemaker, our healer of young wounded egos. “Y’all shut up,” Davis snapped. “KBAV’s back on.” Intermingled with the static (which was sounding more like wind to me, the longer I listened to it-or perhaps every noise now sounded like wind) were a few words we could make out: Heavy rains reported near Bavary and east Bonaparte County… do not travel unless absolutely… winds gusting to 55 mph with threat of tornadoes forming… a man reported missing in La Grange due to flash-flooding… “Hmmph.” Junebug frowned at Trey, “This wasn’t so clever of us to do this, now was it? We ought to get on home.” “You can go out in that if you want, Stinkbug,” Trey said. “I think it’s probably safest for us to stay right here.” He leaned against the trembling wall of the tree house and propped his boots up on the crates we used for a table. “No, what’s safest is for us all to hike back to my mama’s house and stay there.” Davis Foradory stood and stretched. “I think we’ve proved enough, Trey. Come on, let’s go on back to my mamaw’s. We can have chocolate milk and cookies.” “Chocolate milk and cookies,” Trey mocked in the overly nasal tone a lounging prince might use. “That just sounds divine, Four Door. I’m sure you and the other ladies will enjoy yourselves.” “Better than getting our asses blown over to Fayette County,” Davis shot back, He wasn’t easily gulled by Trey. He pulled open the rattly door. The torrent outside roared, wind and rain gusting in over us. Davis gingerly set a foot out on the ladder and paused. “Jesus, shut the door!” Clevey hollered. Davis turned back, his eyeglasses already coated with raindrops. “Do you hear that? Sounds like the train’s running.” Trains. No trains would be running as a hurricane’s totters tore across the Texas coastal plains. I peered out through the window, squinting into the darkness. Darkness squinted back at me. It was almost as though night had settled on Mirabeau as Althea passed over like some shadowy wraith, eclipsing sun and summer sky. I saw trees bending hard in the wind, and grass in the Foradorys’ pasturelands rippling like waves on the ocean. Then I saw it: a dark, jagged line moving toward the woods. Except this line was spinning, its point in the earth, its top arcing back and forth in a short pendulum swing. “Tornado!” I screamed. The other boys froze with shock. “Yeah, right, Jordan-” Trey began, but then he caught sight of my eyes. His face blanched like an old man’s. “I’m not kidding! Tornado coming! Get out! Get down the ladder!” I hollered. There was a mad scrabble as boys leaped for the rope ladder we had pulled up behind us, pushing it out into the darkness. It unfurled like a cracking whip. I yelled at Clevey. “Go down first and hold it steady for the others.” He nodded, fear in his freckled face. As he moved down each rung his weight brought the ladder back toward earth. I saw Clevey reach the bottom, practically sitting on the last rung to steady it. Gusts tore at his hair like a madwoman, and looking down at him, I saw him staring toward the funnel, eyes wide in shock. I turned to Little Ed, pushing him out next, followed by Davis. I gestured at Trey. “Go!” I hollered. “I’m sorry, Jordy,” he said in a whisper that somehow cut through the screams of the storm. He descended into the slashing wind and darkness. Junebug turned from the window, his eyes intense. “We gotta go now, Jordy, now! ” he ordered, shoving me down the ladder, climbing down practically on top of me. Clevey still crouched on the bottom rung; the others were gone, running God knows where. I fell to the ground, the storm shoving me with the force of nature’s worst bully. “Where are they?” Junebug shouted at Clevey. “House!” Clevey yelled back. “Four Door’s house!” Nearly a half mile away. I stumbled, Junebug’s hand gripping my wrist as he pulled me along. He was bigger than me and I didn’t resist. I could hear a roar, like a growl of God. I tried to cry out, but the gale tore my voice from my throat, sending it spinning far above into the dark, rot-colored clouds. Junebug and I ran across pastureland, toward the Old River Road that snakes along the shores of the Colorado. I risked a glance back and, through a sheet of rain, saw the frees churning in the circular wind. Our boyhood hideout and second home cartwheeled crazily apart like a match-stick house. “It’s heading this way,” I screamed into Junebug’s ear. “Run! Run!” We didn’t get much farther. Halfway through the pastureland we fell into a ditch, with water already swirling in it. I tumbled head over heels, Junebug sliding down more gracefully. I landed in muddy, grass-topped water. I froze in terror, thinking a flash flood would sweep us away, but the rain was collecting placidly and was only up to our ankles-for the moment. We were alone. “Lie down! Cover your head!” Junebug ordered me. “Where’s Clevey? And Trey and the others?” I hollered, but he shoved me down, forcing me to obey. I went face-first into the cold rainwater, sheltering my head with my thin arms. Junebug pressed down beside me and we waited, listening as the roaring twister approached. I thought of Daddy and Mama finding my body-and my sister asking if she could have my catcher’s glove. (She fancied herself a better ballplayer than me, which was ridiculous-she couldn’t hit to save her life.) I thought of our friends talking about how stupid we were in braving Althea’s wrath. And I thought of my whole life, left unlived. In heaven, would I forever be a boy, or would I get to grow up? A noise like God’s own tantrum roared in our ears. I shoved my face into water and mud and grass, trying to burrow into the ground. I didn’t know how much later it was when I felt Junebug’s weight ease up beside me. I first became conscious of the quiet. It was as penetrating as the noise had been. An eerie stillness settled on the land, and the sky, rather than being dark, shifted to a bilious green-a gigantic dead eye, staring sightlessly down at us. Junebug and I were coated in mud and twigs. We shook with dampness and shock, our clothes completely soaked. The tornado had passed near us, disintegrating in the storm’s competing winds or as it hit the trees that crowded in on the river. “Holy God,” I heard myself say in something that didn’t sound like a child’s voice. “It’s the eye. It’ll be calm for a little while, then it’ll be much worse.” Junebug started crawling out of the ditch. I followed him, my breath catching in my throat when I looked at the land. Trees lay shattered in a swath. A dirty smell hung in the air, even though we’d just been battered with rain. Where the tree house stood not even the tree remained-only a gaping maw where the old roots had vainly clutched. The land lay like a dead thing. “Clevey!” Junebug brayed at the top of his voice. “Davis! Trey! Where are y’all?” “Oh, God, don’t let ’em be dead,” I coughed. “We got to find them before the eye passes. Then we got to get to Mrs. Foradory’s. We can’t stay out here again.” Junebug ran toward the woods, calling for Little Ed and Clevey, his voice slicing through the ominous quiet. I followed him, avoiding even the trees that had survived, seeing too many branches barely hanging on their moorings. “Here!” I heard Trey’s voice call back hoarsely. “Over here, hurry! Hurry!” His voice broke; shock and fear had replaced coolness and swagger. Junebug and I didn’t see the others right off; they had fled into a dense copse of loblolly pines that the tornado spared. I finally saw them, in a small clearing: a stone-faced Trey, his arm around a sobbing Little Ed, Clevey shaking, Davis staring at the ground gape-mouthed. We ran up to them and Junebug saw her before I did, crying out, “Jesus Christ!” The six of us stood there, silent for once as a group, our eyes riveted on the body of a teenage black girl. I’d thought the sky looked like a dead staring orb, but that girl’s open eyes were the true thing. Blank. Empty. Without a hint of life, staring unflinchingly at the storm. Her skin was brown as rich earth and her face was the kind that just gets prettier with time. But she had no more time left. She was drenched, her yellow blouse molding to her soft, motionless breasts. I made my eyes look at her face again. I couldn’t see any blood on her, but there was a dent in the side of her long, dark hair, as though someone had dropped her, like a doll, from a great and unforgiving height. Her mouth was open and delicately small white teeth stood in perfect formation. A lank of her straightened hair lay across her throat. She was wearing a navy wind-breaker, torn open by the storm, old jeans, and muddied cowboy boots. She was beautiful. And we six boys stood, paralyzed, as the giant wheel of the hurricane moved its calm canopy of eye away from us to thunder down more destruction.

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