A VOICE FICTION FEATURE – Forgotten Promise, Part 1 of an Original Short Novel

February 19, 2003

A VOICE FICTION FEATURE – Forgotten Promise, Part 1 of an Original Short Novel

This week The Voice is pleased to introduce our new fiction feature.
To kick off the column, we have a special treat – Forgotten Promise, an original short novel by Carla Johnson which will be presented in five parts.

After the last installment we will begin running a piece of student fiction each week, so start sending in your submissions. Any form of creative writing is acceptable, including short stories and poems.

Part one:

Laura stood in front of the old red brick building uncertainly, trying to build up courage to enter. Was she doing the right thing after all this time? Perhaps she should have stayed in Vancouver and tried to handle it herself. As she wavered, the door burst open and a tall, elegant woman started down the steps. Laura shrunk back quickly in the shadow of the stairs. The years hadn’t changed Vicki too much. The haughty, beautiful face still wore the elegance of old money, the air of thinking herself far too good for the rest of the world. Vicki whirled back towards the entrance and tossed words back to someone inside. She spoke quietly but their sharpness cut through the air clearly.

“You’ll hear from my lawyers, and don’t expect to get off easy. You couldn’t have made it without my money.” Laura could not hear the reply, but her heart began to hammer as she realized who Vicki must be talking to.

Vicki turned and stalked away from the building, her perfect face set in an angry mask. She brushed past Laura in a whirl of designer clothes, the scent of her expensive perfume wafting through the air. Laura retreated further back into the shadows, but Vicki didn’t even glance in her direction. Her red Mercedes convertible was parked in the loading zone (typical Vicki thought Laura – total disregard for the law). As Vicki slammed the door and squealed away from the curb, Laura turned back toward the building with trepidation. Maybe this was not such a good idea. Obviously Adam had problems of his own. Laura stood indecisively in the shadows, then felt her stomach drop sickeningly as she recognized the tall figure coming towards the open door. Sudden crazy courage filled her and she turned and mounted the steps before she could change her mind, stepping inside the door before he reached it. She pulled the door shut behind her and faced him.

“Adam.” Was all she managed before she froze, her eyes hungrily taking in his appearance. His hair was still black, thick and curly, with that errant lock falling over his forehead. The tips of her fingers tingled as they remembered lovingly pushing back that stray, stroking the thickness of those curls in the heat of passion. She blinked as she shook away the image. His eyes seemed even blacker, perhaps a little colder. The handsome, chiselled lines of his face and the litheness of his body were still as she remembered; but now deep grooves of weariness and worry etched wrinkles around his eyes and mouth.

He stood without moving for a moment. She was beginning to think he didn’t recognize her when she saw the expression in his dark eyes. They had come alive suddenly and he was staring at her with a deep hunger and desire she had relived many times in her dreams, yet thought never to see again.

“Laura?” he whispered, unbelieving. Then she was in his arms, being crushed tightly against him. She felt his lips warm against hers and the years between them fell away. Again she was with him in the gazebo, the breeze gently drifting around them, whispering with the fragrance of lilacs and pine, mixing with the heady warm scent of his skin against hers. She shivered as she felt his fingers burning into her flesh of her back, their heat leaving an imprint through the fabric of her dress.

“Nooo!” she murmured against his lips as her arm went up around his chest to push him away. Instead, her treacherous arm pulled him closer, desire overcoming her momentarily. But good sense washed icy droplets over her suddenly and she broke free of his embrace. He refused to release her totally, still keeping her encircled in his arms, gazing at her face as if he couldn’t get enough. His eyes slowly began to caress the length of her body, and something flickered in his expression. Was it dissatisfaction with her appearance?

Self-consciously her hand started up towards her hair, then she angrily pulled it away. In a sudden flash of memory, she saw herself in the mirror – fresh from his betrayal, scissors in hand, her waist-length auburn hair lying forlorn and scattered on the bathroom floor at her feet. As if chopping it off could cut away the memories of his hands caressing it, twisting long fistfuls around his fingers.

“Never cut it Laura…keep it long for me forever”, he had whispered.

Forever had ended abruptly. But during the last few months she had been too lost in pain to pay attention to her personal appearance, and her hair had started to grow out, now falling lightly to her shoulders. She had never considered herself beautiful, but the years had given her a maturity of face and figure that made her now an attractive woman, not the pretty, awkward teenager he had known. Her large, deep-set green eyes were still her most arresting feature, but years of bitter experience, betrayal and hurt had blurred their clarity and innocence.

He painfully pulled his eyes back to her face, to meet hers. “I can’t believe it, Laura. I gave up hope long ago of finding you. Why did you leave me?” he demanded.

Laura pushed herself fully away from him and spoke abruptly, the betrayal and anger of seven years churning to the surface as she replied,

“Do you really not know the answer to that question?”

She was rewarded by a sudden ashamed look as he dropped his gaze. He hesitated, then once again met her look straight on.

“What can I say, Laura? Sorry is not a good enough word. If there were even a way to put it in words. I was a young fool, as I’ve learned these years. I learned too much too late. Believe me, I’ve suffered for the choice I made.”

“Like you even know the meaning of the word “?suffer'” she thought. Briefly she felt a pang of guilt at her uncharitableness. Obviously Adam didn’t have a perfect life. But as quickly as the thought intruded, she banished it. She could not allow any hint of sympathy, nor could she permit any feelings of compassion. Anger had been her only resource for survival. She had to remain hard and accomplish her purpose. Adam did not know the meaning of the word suffer.

She drew a deep breath and pulled herself back mentally.

“Adam, I came here for a specific reason. We can’t change the past, it’s gone. I never intended to come back. God knows I’ve tried to kill my feelings for you after what you did to me. . .” her voice trailed off, and then she got hold of herself again. “Recently things changed for me. I really need to talk to you. I….I need….your help. It….involves you…..I have nowhere else to turn”. She stopped speaking, biting her lower lip nervously. How was the best way to broach this? He really was a stranger to her in so many ways, living a life even more distant than before. He had a wife, one that obviously had a great deal of power. Would he be willing to help her? More importantly, could she maintain the necessary distance? She had been totally unprepared for her emotional lapse.

“You know I will do anything in my power to help you. But let’s not stand here discussing things, where anyone could interrupt.” He glanced briefly at the door, and it was apparent what kind of interruption he was referring to. He continued, “We can have privacy upstairs in my apartment.”

Laura glanced around for the first time, taking in the impressive, high ceilings and long narrow windows. A bright, wide open area, dotted with drafting tables. The late afternoon sun was now stretching its shadows across the patina of the polished hardwood floor, creating an aura of mysterious elegance. The aged grandeur of the building had been restored to perfection: the ultimate creative environment for Adam. He had always said that perfect architecture required a humble respect for the past.

She turned back to him. “Apartment?” She said in a puzzled tone, “What about your beautiful home?” How many hours they had planned it together? How often had they sat side by side in the tall grass on the vacant lot, gazing at the reflection of the city lights in the river below, dreaming of the day their house would become reality. But the reality had turned out to be marriage to Vicki. Reality had been an end to Laura’s dreams.

“Vicki and her .. ah.. friends enjoy it. I spend so much time here that I converted the top floor into an apartment, and I usually stay there. She doesn’t join me here, in case you’re wondering.”

He saw her look of surprise and disbelief, and added, “she was here today because I invited her to discuss . . ” he hesitated, “something. A divorce, in fact. We haven’t shared our lives for some time.” He made no further comment, and Laura said nothing, unwilling to consider the possibilities his words brought up. Right now she had only one goal in mind.

“Let’s go then”, she agreed.

He locked the door and led her down the hall to the elevator. “I usually have a receptionist at the front and the room full of assistants, but we shut down early because of a civic holiday tomorrow.” He placed his hand lightly on her back to escort her into the elevator, and once again the warmth seemed to burn through her, a sharp contrast the chill she had felt in her bones since arriving in Edmonton and its accompanying memories. They rode in silence to the top.

“Welcome to my home, Laura.” He said as he opened the apartment door. His eyes were warm and inviting, but Laura forced herself to look away. She had to try not to let her emotions rise to the fore. Too much had happened and she knew she mustn’t let desire distract her thinking.

It was a beautiful apartment, tastefully decorated. The same high, elegant ceilings and long windows, the warm patina of aged wood panelling. It seemed exactly the kind of place Laura herself would choose. Her eyes were drawn like a magnet to the coffee table.

“Yes, Laura, I keep it where I can see it everyday.” He came up behind her, not touching her, but uncomfortably close. It was a Mexican piggy bank – she had found it in a little import shop and had given it to Adam at his graduation, jokingly telling him, “This is to start saving your millions.” Now she refused to consider the implications behind his words and forced a little laugh.

“It must have outgrown its usefulness long ago.”

“Yes, financially and professionally, I’ve been a success. I’ve got all the material things any man could want. What I don’t have . .” he placed his hands on her shoulders to turn her around to face him, but she twisted away from him and crossed the room to sit on one of the plush velvet couches.

“I told you I’m here for a reason. I must talk to you, Adam. And I want to make it clear right now, we can’t pick up where we left off. You finished what was between us a long time ago. You have a wife. You made your choice. Please don’t make this any harder for me.”

He took a slow breath, then sighed in defeat. “Alright, Laura, we will talk. It’s just….you….I….I thought I would never..” He broke off, then pulled away from his moment of weakness.

“Look, Laura, have you had dinner?” He seemed eager to prolong the moment. “My housekeeper always leaves me something prepared, and I think we’d both be more comfortable if we ate first, then talked later.” He paused, hesitant again. “Please, Laura?” he added.

“But . . . ” Laura started to protest that food was far from her mind, but then realized that her stomach churnings were in part due to hunger. She hadn’t been able to eat on the plane, in fact had not really eaten for days. Perhaps the ritual of sharing a meal would make her less nervous. Maybe he was right. Adam was always a practical man first. Ignoring the warning bells, she agreed. “Alright, we’ll eat first, then talk”.

“You mix the drinks while I change.” he ordered, taking off his tie and jacket as he headed down the hall.

His confidence that she had not forgotten what he drank irked her; all the more because it was true. She went to the sideboard and found the scotch. “Nothing but the best”, she thought as she read the label. Yes, he obviously was a financial success. All the better for what she needed. She poured two drinks of scotch – he had taught her to share his taste in alcohol as well; and went into the kitchen in search of ice. She was returning to the living room when Adam opened the kitchen door and almost collided with her.

“Sorry”, she mumbled as she pulled back from his touch, “just getting ice.” He had changed into more casual clothes, dark pants and a white shirt that emphasized his dark eyes and made the honey glow of his tan stand out.

Laura started to blush as she realized he was looking her over as well; and was glad she had worn a dress. He had always liked her in a dress, and she knew she looked good in the one she was wearing. She felt an absurd rush of pleasure, then quashed it “I’m just softening him up”, she said to herself, unwilling to derive any satisfaction from his admiring gaze.

“You’ve become a beautiful woman, Laura.” The corner of his mouth began to twitch, dimpling his cheek. “I can see in your eyes that you like the way I look too.”

Embarrassed, Laura dropped her eyes and said in a low voice, “Well, you always were the handsomest man I knew.” She handed him the glass of scotch and pushed past him through the doorway, pausing and turning to add, “and the most conceited, too.”

He turned back to the kitchen, his harsh laugh following her return to the living room. It sounded rusty and unused. By the looks of him, he didn’t laugh often any more. How she wished she could shut out the memories of the happy times they had spent before laughter had turned to tears. “Get a hold of yourself, Laura! Just get the job done, remember.” But as she leaned back into the plush sofa and sipped her drink, the wildly painted piggy bank mocked her, flooding her mind with uncontrolled memories.

How he had laughed with her when she gave him the bank. “Yes,” he said, “I’ll have my million. You know what I want from life. But I want it for us, and for our children.” Then he had dazzled her with his smile and held her close. They walked, and somehow ended up in his parent’s garden gazebo. There he had kissed her and made love to her, his promises making her heart sing, passion carrying them away into mindless ecstasy.

Less than a month later, as she lay dreamily by his side in the warm late summer evening, Laura’s life was shattered into little pieces as Adam calmly and coolly told her he was going to marry Vicki Robinson.

“I knew you would understand”, he had told her. “I need money and connections to set up my practice, and with her father’s help I’ll soon have my career exactly where I want it. It’s my golden opportunity. You know me, Laura; you know what success means to me. Surely you understand, and we can sacrifice ourselves for a while”.

She didn’t comprehend at first what he meant, just stared in bewilderment, tears rolling down her face. But then he kissed away her tears and said, “You’re the only one I’ll ever love, Laura. Don’t you understand? I’m doing this for us. My marriage will really only be in name. Surely you can’t imagine I’d want to make love to that cold piece of glass.”

A sudden wave of horror made her physically sick as she slowly realized what he was asking of her. All his sweet words about life and children together were lies. She pushed him away, and with a calmness that surprised her, told him, “Yes, Adam, I understand. To you a career and money come first. It’s always been money. You never intended that I be part of your world. I thought I knew you, but I was mistaken. The man I was in love with doesn’t exist. Goodbye, Adam.” Her voice caught on a sob, and she got to her feet. She walked away, forcing herself not to turn around, for if she had looked back and seen the hurt expression in his eyes, she knew she would have turned around and promised him anything. Anything not to lose him.

But she didn’t turn around. She forced herself to concentrate on Vicki. He was going to marry Vicki. Vicki. The rich spoiled heiress who always got what she wanted. And poor little Laura from the “wrong side of town”? He wanted her to wait around for him. In what capacity? Lover? Mistress? Lady-in-waiting? Perhaps he intended to install her as a housekeeper/mistress in his home.

Her heart began to bleed and pain enveloped her as she started blindly running through the grass. Her only thought was, “run, run away. It won’t hurt if I keep running”. And as she ran, the sky darkened with the grey clouds of a coming thunderstorm. Flashes of lightening began to tear across the sky, the dark rumble of thunder roared in her ears, and the sky opened up, the warm rain washing the salt tears from her face. On she ran, heedless of the wind whipping her hair wildly around, the blackness of the sky matching the emptiness inside, each illuminating crash of light stabbing deeply into her heart. On she ran, hopelessly attempting to escape, the rain soaking her clothing as she splashed through the puddles. The headlights of an approaching car caught her before she almost stumbled off the curb onto the street, stopping her mad dash.

Mindlessly she slowed to a dejected walk. Her life was over. The storm raged unabated around her, but she no longer felt the wind or the rain. At some point during that long lonely night trek, she felt something surround her. A protective wall. A new emotion. A way to survive. Somehow she found herself at her back porch. She gave a prayer of thanks that her parents were asleep as she stumbled into her room. Tomorrow. Tomorrow there would be more things to run from.

But running no longer seemed a possible solution the next day when she woke up violently ill. After the nausea passed, she splashed cold water on her face and realized she no longer had a choice. She had to face her parents and tell them the truth.

Their eager smiles awaited her when she finally stumbled down the stairs. They raised hopeful eyes, awaiting the good news – that she had set the wedding date. Laura felt as if her hopelessness and despair was colouring her as black as last night’s thunderclouds, but they seemed to notice nothing. Her heart plummeted as she contemplated how to break the news.

She poured herself a coffee and slowly sat at the table, mumbling a good morning.

Her parents were old-fashioned, loving but strict. They had always made Laura feel that they would stand by her no matter what, but that she better not break the rules or else. Laura didn’t know what to expect. She took a deep breath and with trepidation, broached the subject.

“Dad, I . . .I have to tell you and mom something. I love you and I know you love me, but I’ve done something . . .” her voice tapered off as her courage deserted her.

“Laura honey, what are you trying to say? Is it you and Adam? Have you called off the wedding?” My mother gasped.

“No….Yes….No….I mean…it’s not….” Laura stumbled over the words, realizing that this was going to be harder than she thought. Frantically she lifted pleading eyes to her mother, her hands moved protectively to her abdomen. “Mom….I’m….” Sudden comprehension dawned in her mother’s eyes, and she turned to look at her husband.

“No!” was all her dad said. A silence enveloped the room. Finally her mother reached over and covered Laura’s hand with her own.

“Well,” she said, in a practical way, trying to find a neat resolution to the problem, “we will move up the wedding date.”

“You don’t understand”, Laura said. “There isn’t going to be a wedding. He’s marrying someone else.” With that bald statement of betrayal she broke down. How could she go on?

Mom and Dad were her salvation. Within days they were off to a new life in Vancouver. Laura was blind with grief and did not know how to endure the hours, days, weeks and months ahead. She did not question anything they did or anything they said. Too late she realized what a mistake that had been. But at the time she was happy to let them take care of her. To let them hide her and heal her.

As weeks turned into months, her unborn child became her comfort, her salvation. As she sat dreaming, her parents often looked at her with strange expressions, as if assessing her mental state. They often talked late into the night, voices a low murmur across the hall. But they never shared their thoughts with Laura, and she shut everything out. She concentrated on the new life inside her. Soon she would always have a piece of her beloved with her.

The night they took her to the hospital she was overcome with conflicting emotions. How she longed for Adam. How eagerly she awaited their child. Then the black nightmare descended. After an eternity of screaming pain, Laura awoke to a quiet voice telling her,

“Supper’s ready!” She blinked, startled, as Adam’s voice brought her back to reality. “Focus on what you must do!” She said to herself. “Stop drifting!”

They made small talk as they ate. Laura tried to completely blot out her awareness of Adam, keeping things deliberately casual and light. Carefully skirting around anything too personal, they discussed what they were doing with their lives. She told Adam about going back to school and getting a nursing degree, specializing in psychiatric nursing, and about her work with disturbed children. In turn he told her about his successful architectural firm, the many projects completed, and the wonderful buildings that would forever bear witness to his vision.

He told her a little about some of the people who worked for him: his partner Jerry and Jerry’s family, his housekeeper, and her little granddaughter, who in particular seemed to have caught his interest. Perhaps Laura’s discussion of her work with disturbed children brought the subject on, and he told her of this unusual, artistic and sensitive child. In answer to her unspoken question, he confirmed that he and Vicki had no children of their own. Pain flashed in his eyes at his admission, but Laura did not question any further.

All too soon the temporary respite dinner offered had ended. Adam seemed more relaxed. Laura, however, felt even more tense and ill at ease. Many times over the last few days she had rehearsed what she would say, but now she could not speak.

He poured her another glass of wine, and standing, took her hand and led her back to the sofa. He sat next to her, but not too close, sensing her tension. Without releasing her hand, he turned to face her. “Well, Laura?” He prompted her, “How can I help you?”

The warmth of his eyes made her legs turn to Jello, and she forgot all the practiced speech. “Adam :” she hesitated, “I..I need you to help me,” she paused, then blurted out, “I need you to help me find our daughter!”

Read The Voice next week for part two of Carla Johnson’s Forgotten Promise.

For submissions for the upcoming Voice student fiction column, contact voice@ausu.org.