PROMISE ME NOTHING – CHAPTER ONE (HANNAH)

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It felt like it had to be a mistake this morning when I saw the email in my inbox.

Or maybe mistake isn’t the right word.

I tap my pen against my half-finished math homework, trying to come up with the word I’m actually trying to…

Warning.

That’s the word I’m looking for.

It feels like a warning, the email that sits in my inbox.

It taunts me even now as I choose to ignore it. Try not to think about it. Consider deleting it so I don’t have to deal with the whole mess that’s surely headed my way once I decide to finally face whatever information it contains.

If I decide to face it.

There’s a big part of me that wants to delete it. Like one of those Bed, Bath and Beyond emails letting you know you have a twenty percent off coupon for one item as long as you use it this week.

Just chuck it in the trash. You don’t need it.

I scrub my hands over my eyes, feeling like my thoughtsaren’t making sense.

There’s a niggling voice, a little thing in the back of my mind that’s telling me this message is… not as disposable as a discount coupon email. Even now, ten hours after I received the ping announcing its presence in my inbox, it feels like for some reason… this is just, something else entirely.

Something bigger.

Something life-changing.

And being someone who aggressively dislikes change, I saw the email and did what felt right.

Powered down my phone, closed the screen on my rented laptop, and pretended it didn’t exist.

The easiest thing to do when you’re faced with something difficult is to ignore it. Obviously that’s also the stupidest thing to do as well. But easy and stupid tend to go hand-in-hand.

Instead of reading something that I knew could very well change my life in an instant, I tried to distract myself with other more important things that needed to be accomplished today.

Like this homework that still sits incomplete in my lap, my pen tap, tap, tapping against it like that will somehow clear my mind and allow me to focus on polynomial functions. Whatever the hell those are.

I stare blankly at it for a moment longer before finally accepting defeat.

Setting my homework to the side, I stretch my long, lean frame diagonally across my full-size bed, focusing my eyes on the cracks in the ceiling. The little bit of water damage in the corner from where the leak upstairs happened last month. The dusty ceiling fan that stopped working last year.

Sometimes I wonder what else life could possibly have in store for me. What other land mines and trip wires are stacked along the path ahead? Will my life ever not feel like I’m rushing head first into a war zone with every step I take?

I suck in a deep breath, hold it, then let it out. Long. Slow. Trying to release the pent up anger and frustration and disappointment. Because sitting in irritation never solved anyone’s problems.

Rolling onto my side, I glance at the alarm clock sitting next to my bed. It’s two o’clock on a Friday. That means Sienna is probably sitting uncomfortably on a bar stool at her sunglass kiosk job at the mall.

I briefly consider heading her way. I might not have any money to spend, but I have a monthly bus pass that can get me there, and talking to Sienna is better than sitting around my hot ass apartment.

But when I do the math in my head, I know there isn’t enough time to get there and back before I need to pick up my roommate Melanie’s daughter from school a little after three o’clock. So I stay laying on my back, just staring at the ceiling, trying to force myself to complete my homework.

I hate going to school, and all of the tedious busywork that comes along with it.

It didn’t take me long to realize that I wouldn’t be getting the traditional college experience. The one you see in the movies filled with coffee shops and doing homework at the library, Friday night frat parties and Saturday morning walks of shame.

Unfortunately, that is just not the hand that I’ve been dealt.

Instead, I’m a twenty-one-year-old ex-foster system resident, babysitter and waitress, fitting college courses in where I can manage the time and financial impact.

Of course, I feel guilty even thinking of myself like that. My mother was always saying there are two sides to every story. That just because I see something one way doesn’t mean that’s the right way to see it.

She had this thing about always countering the negative thoughts with the positive, something she was great at but, unfortunately, a skill I’ve never learned to apply on any kind of regular basis.

Like right now.

I could try to describe myself as a young woman who hasn’t let foster care get the best of her, who is busting her ass to create a happy life by taking on two jobs and going to college, while slowly getting the knowledge and experience I need to build up a photography business.

I nearly gag at that description, feeling like it’s something out of a Lifetime movie.

I look around my apartment. At the shabby furniture and cracks and stains and… it just feels like I’d be giving myself too much credit. The reality feels grittier. Dirtier. More riddled with tragedy and failure and fear that still startles me awake some nights.

With my emotions full of upheaval, I know there’s really only one way to deal with it. So I drag myself off of my bed and over to my dresser and closet, put on my favorite old top from my Cross Country days in high school, a shirt so worn there are holes in the armpits, and then I lace up my ragged trainers and head for the door.

It was my brother that got me into running, back when I was in junior high. Our parents had recently passed away and the two of us were in separate foster homes in opposite parts of the city and I just didn’t know how to deal with my emotions.

They felt so big.

Too big.

Too overwhelming to deal with.

All the time.

Joshua was a sprinter on the Track team at his high school. A senior that year on the Varsity team, with the cool jacket to back it up, he said that running let him focus on something other than the pain he felt at the loss of our parents.

He told me how it made him feel like he was blurring out the world. Gave him a sense of calm that he couldn’t find anywhere else. A numbness that eased the pain.

The first day we went jogging together, I knew exactly what he meant. I just ran and ran and ran. When we were done, Joshua was gasping for breath, and I was in a happy place I’d never known existed before. We ran seven miles that day. I hadn’t known I could run that much, especially at so young. That I had the stamina or muscles or mental endurance.

I started running all the time, especially when life got harder. And in a tribute to my brother, I managed to get my own Varsity jacket when I made the Cross Country team sophomore year.

It’s still one of the nicest things I own and hangs carefully in my closet.

After stretching out my stiff muscles for a few minutes, I hit the pavement with the same end in mind that Joshua introduced me to so many years ago. To let my mind fall away. My mind and everything that I don’t feel like dealing with.

Today, I want to fade to nothing.

I start at an easy pace, my feet touching the ground lightly as they propel me forward. And it isn’t long before I can feel my body taking over and my mind falling in line. I run like a machine, without emotion or feeling. And that’s what I enjoy the most about it. The bit of nothingness that I can find when I run for long enough. Almost like I’m able to disappear.

Going on a run usually helps me pound out the frustration – a byproduct of a life spent running away from my problems.

I almost laugh at that. It’s something my brother would have said. But a lance of pain shoots through me at that thought, so I dig my feet in, propelling my body forward, hoping to keep my mind distracted.

And around mile three, everything starts to fade away.

My tuition bill, which is still unpaid even as the end of the semester looms closer and closer; the fact that Paul keeps cutting back my waitressing hours even though I told him I couldn’t afford to work any less without picking up a third job; Melanie’s face last week when she told me that she and Lissy would be moving to New Mexico to live with her sister; the email that remains unopened, taunting me from my inbox and reminding me that life can change in an instant.

It all becomes a blur.

I don’t see faces or hear voices or think about problems or feel pain. I don’t allow myself to focus on the uncertainty, the many unanswered questions, the constant unknown.

I don’t focus on anything.

I just run.

I’m finishing up mile six when I pass PHX Municipal Bank, my eyes connecting with the time posted on the sign outside. I curse when I realize I’ve lost track of time and I’m going to be late to pick up Lissy. I pick up the pace, not wanting Lissy left waiting for me out front.

She’s a sweet kid. First grade. Mrs. Schumaker’s class. She has a retainer and pigtails and glasses that are a little too big for her face. She struggles to make friends, but I think she’s pretty amazing.

“I’ve been waiting for you!” she says when I come running up to where she stands next to the school sign – Randolph Woods Elementary School for the Deaf.

I’d laugh if I thought she wouldn’t get mad at me. She’s so cute when she’s angry, her arms crossed, her backpack flung in a heap next to her feet.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I was on a run and lost track of time.”

She rolls her eyes, lugs her backpack up and over her shoulder, then blazes down the pathway towards the parking lot, through the massive fence that divides her small school’s property from the public.

The thing about babysitting a deaf child is that when they run – or in this case, storm – away from you, you can’t just yell after them. So, I chase her down and bring her to a stop by standing in front of her.

“I didn’t drive today. We have to walk.”

The look of irritation written on her face could turn me into a pile of ashes. Luckily, I’m pretty familiar with this look, so I just give her a smile and take her backpack.

“I’ll hold this. That way you don’t have to worry about lugging it up the hill.” I sling it over my shoulders, then I crouch down slightly, making sure my face is level with hers, and speak slowly, so she can understand every word. “I really am sorry for not being here on time. You don’t deserve to sit out front and wait. I hope you can forgive me.”

Her brow pinches together and she stays standing with her arms crossed, the cutest look of frustration still covering her face.

Then, finally, reluctantly, her face relaxes and she drops her arms.

“I was worried you forgot me.”

My heart twists, and I nod.

It’s her greatest fear, being forgotten. And it kills me to know that my own stupid mental games with myself made her feel that way.

“I know, Lis. And that’s my fault. Sometimes, adults are imperfect and we run late. And you have every right to be upset.” I put a hand on her shoulder. “But I want to make sure you know that no matter what, I will always be here to pick you up. I would never just leave you here.”

“Even when we move to Mexico?”

Part of me wants to laugh, though I don’t correct her. She’s still learning her states. The other part of me is sad that even at her age, she already understands that our remaining time together is limited. I shake my head and she sighs, slipping her hand into mine as we both turn to start the walk home.

She stays quiet for a little while, but eventually she launches in to a story about Cliffton, a douchebag in her class who always says mean things to her. I know I shouldn’t call a kid a douchebag, but anyone who has had to interact with this Cliffton dick before would probably take my side.

And I can’t help but be fiercely protective of Lissy. I’ve known this pipsqueak since literally the day she was born. Her mom, my roommate Melanie, was one of the only other kids I developed a real relationship with in foster care.

Even after everything I’ve been through over the years, all the different places I bounced around, we’ve always kept a close relationship. And when Melanie’s sister moved to New Mexico and I was aging out of the system, becoming her new roommate and helping out with Lissy was just a natural next step.

Discounted rent to help out with a kiddo that I already loved? Yes times ten.

I started learning to sign when Melanie found out Lissy was deaf, and when Mel is around, we use both sign and vocals to communicate. But when it’s just Lis and me? She hates the attention that signing brings to her, so she asks me to speak to her instead.

Melanie usually gets mad about it, saying that lip reading as opposed to signing is a form of trying to ‘fit in’ that will work to Lissy’s disadvantage long-term.

But I figure what Melanie doesn’t know won’t kill her. And having been the kid that stood out, I know that anything to feel like you ‘fit in’ can make a huge difference.

Once we get home, Lissy forgets all about stupid Cliffton and we spend some time on her homework and practicing new words she’s been learning. Melanie gets home around six o’ clock and the three of us eat dinner together.

“How was work?” I ask her as I finish putting the rice and beans out on the table. “Did you turn in your notice yet?”

Melanie works as the administrator for a health insurance claims company. She hates her job, but feels like she won the lottery with the benefits she gets. I have to agree with her.

Sometimes, you put up with the mundane, frustrating shit because it gives you what you’ve never had.

Consistency.

“Yeah, and my boss was really supportive.” She sighs. “I wish things were different and I didn’t have to leave.”

“You know you can stay, right?” I say, feeling a little guilty for trying to get her to change her mind.

But Melanie shakes her head, giving me a sad smile. “And you know that I can’t.”

She’s right, though I don’t say it.

Melanie and her sister are best friends, and she’s had a really hard time adjusting ever since Marissa moved to New Mexico three years ago. So, Melanie and Lissy are going to be packing up and following her out there. They’re going to move in with Marissa and her husband, and apparently she has a job already lined up to work for a construction company that needs someone to cover a receptionist going on maternity leave.

It’s great for her. Doesn’t mean I’m not sad about it, though.

Eventually, we finish dinner, and then I pack up and head out to the bus stop, leaving Lissy and Melanie to their Friday evening routine of renting a movie and splurging on a few sugary treats.

Most Friday nights, I’m working at The Lone Grill, a barbeque restaurant a few miles from where we live. But stupid Paul has been stealthily slicing away hours here and there from my schedule and giving them to this new girl that I think he might be sleeping with.

Part of me wants to file a complaint, though I don’t have any real proof and I’m not sure anything would come from it.

And, with mid-terms coming up next week, I decide to just take the night off for what it is: a much-needed opportunity to study and try to pass this pointless class.

Campus is only a fifteen-minute bus ride away, and I just can’t afford any distractions. Even though I feel completely lost, and I’m struggling to keep up with everything, I still have to do my best.

My parents always wanted my brother and I to go to college, and there’s something inside of me that won’t allow myself to give up on their dream. Especially since I’m the only one left to try and live it into reality.

So, instead of calling Sienna or trying to do something interesting with my night off, I trudge my butt onto the next bus that stops at my station, and head to campus.

I truly do have good intentions when I get to the library. It’s a weekend, so the building is fairly empty. Only a handful of other students are wandering around or slumped over textbooks, their lives just as pathetic as mine if we’re finding ourselves studying on a community college campus on a Friday night.

Knowing I have a reflection paper to write for my Intro to Literature class, I wander over to the textbooks that are available to check out – because I definitely can’t afford to buy my own – and grab the one for my class. Then I spend an hour reading a collection of poems. A bunch of flowery shit by Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.

When I get to Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken, it takes everything in me not to roll my eyes.

I don’t despise literature. But I do aggressively dislike shit that’s stated as fact without any consideration for what someone else’s perspective might be.

Like, why would you encourage people to intentionally take the more difficult road, Robert? Maybe I’m pretty exhausted because my road is full of branches to climb over and I’ve got scratches from limbs and bruises from tripping and falling.

A well-traveled road that’s easy to navigate sounds pretty damn great to me. And who says you get to choose? Sometimes, life gives you one shitty road and that’s what you have to walk. The end.

I slam the book closed, maybe a little louder than I should in a space that’s supposed to be quiet. Glancing around, I catch one girl’s eyes. Sorry, I mouth at her, but she just looks away without acknowledging me.

Cool, cool, cool.

I carry my stuff over to one of the computer stations and log myself in to the system, gearing up to write this reflection paper that’s due on Tuesday.

And it’s then I make my first mistake.

I open my email.

There, sitting towards the top, sandwiched between a reminder to pay my tuition and – I can’t make this up – a Bed, Bath & Beyond coupon, is the email I’ve been avoiding.

I minimize the screen, attempting for just one more minute to pretend that it isn’t there. I crack open the literature book again and glare at Robert Frost’s name, as if everything about this is his fault.

But all I can think is just get it over with.

Choosing to let impulse guide me, I quickly reopen my email browser and click on the message that has dominated so much of my thoughts today.

And it’s here, in a quiet library, sitting at a computer, next to a printer that’s whirring out what must be someone’s entire dissertation, that my world does exactly what I thought it would.

It changes forever.

I barely even hear it when someone sits down at the computer to my right. Hardly notice when someone finally comes to collect the printed pages out of the printer to my left.

Because the words in this email have robbed me of my ability to use my legs. My hands. My mouth. Even my eyes, which have gone blurry and unfocused.

I blink a few times, trying to adjust my vision, the bright light of the computer screen feeling now too aggressive in my face.

But even as I blink, and blink, and try to refocus my eyes, those words never shift, change or disappear.

Your brother has joined MatchLink. Do you want to connect?

It shouldn’t make a lick of sense. But it does.

My brother.

My brother.

My brother.

No. Not my brother.

My brother died when I was twelve. My brother’s name is Joshua. My brother is… was. He was everything. He was the man I looked to for support and guidance in a world where we both felt so lost. He was my constant support until he was taken from me. Too soon. Too quickly after our parents.

So this? This isn’t a way to connect with my brother. My brother has been gone for years, and I have mourned him and the life I thought we’d have one day.

Whoever this is? On the other side of this screen?

He might share blood with me, but he is not my brother.

And he’ll never take Joshua’s place.

My cursor hovers over a green button with a tiny DNA link on it and a few simple words.

Do you want to connect? And then, before I can think better of it, before I can question myself, scold myself, feel ashamed about the fact that I might be replacing my brother … I click yes.

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