Saturday, July 28, 2012

Free Read Friday

The Promise Tree  -   Chapter One 

            “I told you, I’m not interested in the job. I’m sorry, but you’ll have to find someone else.” Wynn Colton hung up the outdated beige wall-mounted phone and poured a cup of coffee. He opened the back door, stood on the porch of the old farmhouse and stared at the willow tree hanging low near the creek in the distance. Steam plumed from the coffee mug as he lifted it to his mouth, clouding his view.
            Inside, the phone jangled again. Wynn took a sip of the hot drink and set the mug on the warped windowsill. He strode down the steps and through the field. When he reached the willow tree, he split the veil of hanging branches with the back of his hand and stepped inside the blue green cave. It rained the previous night, and the swollen creek gurgled along its banks. Shards of sunshine cut through the leaves, dancing around Wynn’s feet.
            His eyes followed the trunk to the base of a low branch. A wooden box hung at an angle, one supporting nail loosened by time and the elements. Wynn reached up and flipped open the lid, remembering the day he had constructed the receptacle. He undid the plastic bag inside and removed a few strips of paper, discolored by time and wrinkled from moisture. The ink had faded, but he knew by heart the messages they bore.
            Opening the first one, he read: I wish I could go to Vermont with the ski club. I promise I’ll do my chores from now on. A smile tugged at his mouth. It seemed so simple once. Make a wish and make a promise—and your wish would come true. They didn’t all come true, and even then he knew they wouldn’t. Now he understood that wishes rarely came true, and promises could not always be kept.
            He unfolded another yellowed slip of paper. I wish my breasts would start to grow. I promise not to let a boy touch them, not even Wynn, until I’m married.
            A laugh rumbled deep inside him as he recalled the day Trudi McNeil wrote this and then flushed bright red when he jerked it from her hand to read it. Suddenly, he was twelve years old again and towering over a petite, barefoot Trudi. Her eyes flashed in anger, like dark blue storm clouds, as she jumped to retrieve the note from his fingers. From that day on, he would catch himself covertly staring at Trudi’s chest, measuring her progress.
            He stuffed the papers back into the plastic and secured the box lid. Trudi. The memory made him smile. He hadn’t seen her in, what, six or seven years now? Her daughters must be grown and on their own. His fingers examined the rough tree bark. The promise tree. He and Trudi had given the tree its name the day Trudi caught Wynn sitting beneath its branches and smoking a stolen cigarette. He was ten years old, she was nine. He made her promise not to tell. She laughed and teased, asking, “What will you give me if I don’t tell?”
            He pulled a smooth stone, speckled with glittering bits of coal like black diamonds, from his pocket and held it out to her. He considered the stone to be his lucky charm. Trudi lifted it from his open palm and smiled, tore a piece of paper from the diary she carried and scrawled a note, handing it to him: I wish Wynn wouldn’t smoke. I promise not to tell if he promises to quit. She took the paper, folded it into quarters, and stuffed it into a small niche in the tree trunk. And the promise tree was born.
            Wynn made the box later that week in his father’s workshop and, together, he and Trudi nailed it into place using long roofing nails. It had been Trudi’s idea to line it with a plastic bag to protect their promises. That was Trudi—protective.
            He let his fingers rest on the box for a moment before turning and heading back toward the house. A jeep sat in the drive, and Mayor Tom Gallagher occupied the cane rocker on the porch, his fingers playing on the brim of a felt Stetson hat.
            “Tom. What brings you out here with your hat in your hand?” Wynn stopped and closed his eyes. “Let me guess. You’ve been sent to convince me to run the hospital.”
            “You always were so damned smart, Wynn. That’s why you got out of this shithole town and the rest of us are still here.”
            Wynn sat on the top step and leaned back against a support post. “But I wasn’t smart enough to stay away, was I?”
            “Maybe you’re back here for a reason, some greater plan. Ever think of that?”
            Wynn grinned. “When did you become a philosopher? I’m only here to handle the sale of this house for my dad.”
            Tom leaned forward, resting his forearms on his thighs, his ample abdomen providing an obstacle to the move. “We need you, Wynn. The hospital’s hanging on by a thread. We’ve had four doctors in five years. They all get better offers, or find a greener pasture somewhere else. You’re one of us. This is your home.”
            Wynn rose and stepped up onto the porch, opening the screen door. “You want a beer or a glass of tea?”
            “No, thanks. I have a town council meeting in twenty minutes. What I need is for you to say you’ll give us at least a year at the hospital, see if you can turn things around.”
            “I’m a doctor, not a miracle worker.”
            The mayor nodded. “I’ve done my homework. The internet doesn’t keep secrets. You’re a well-respected surgeon in the medical community. With you in charge, we could attract other talent, maybe get some funding to keep the hospital running.”
            Shaking his head, Wynn laughed. “I’m not nearly as famous outside of this town as you and a lot of other people seem to think. I can’t help you, Tom. I’m not staying here long.”
            Tom took his time standing and descending the rickety wooden steps. He gazed across the field dotted by wildflowers to the brightly painted McNeil house. “You ever hear from Trudi?”
            “Nope. Why should I?”
            Tom shrugged. “Just wondered. There was a time you two were quite an item. Surprised everyone when you each married other people.”
            “Ancient history. We were kids.” Wynn’s glance swept to the white clapboard house, settling back on his old high school classmate. “Are we done here? I have a leaky sink to repair. Got to get this place ready to sell.”
            “You know where to find me if you change your mind.” Tom waddled more than walked to the jeep and hefted his body inside. He waved and backed the vehicle from the driveway.       
            Wynn’s gaze drifted back to the McNeil house once more. He should at least stop by and pay a courtesy visit to Mrs. McNeil. He’d heard she was in ill health since her husband died last year. He took in a deep breath and returned to the kitchen to face the dripping pipe beneath the timeworn aluminum sink.
            He was used to working with his hands, but in a much more delicate manner in which his movements dictated life or death. Tightening the pipe wrench, he gave a hard twist and the pipe gave way. Water splattered onto his face, leaving him sputtering. “Dammit.” He lifted his head and connected with the pipe. Pain shot across his forehead. “Shit!” He slid his body out of the narrow space and felt his wounded head, but his fingers came away clean. He hadn’t broken the skin. He would have a goose egg.
            When he was a teenager, he’d been too busy with football to learn basic household repair skills from his father. He felt so damned helpless as he peered back under the sink at the separated pipe. He had two choices—buy a ‘how to’ book and figure it out for himself, or call in a professional. How many times had he reminded his patients that he was the professional who could best determine their medical needs? And what was he trying to prove, anyway, by undertaking the repairs to get the old farmhouse ready for sale? Swallowing his pride and taking his own advice, he crossed the kitchen and picked up the phone book.
            He dialed the number for the first listing—A-1 Plumbing. Someone would be there the following morning, he was told. He was instructed not to run water in that sink in the meantime. Wynn looked at the phone with disgust. “I figured that much out myself.”
            He hung up, feeling badly about taking his frustration out on the plumber. He should save his frustrations at least until he got the bill.
            Wynn opened the back door and stepped out onto the stoop. He drew in a lungful of fresh air and relished in the quiet. In the weeks since he returned to his family home, he found it a challenge to adjust to the stillness. Not that he missed the sounds of traffic, honking horns, shouting motorists, and the smell of buses belching diesel. But the absolute stillness unsettled him. Perhaps because he had nothing to drown out his memories, or to give him the false perception that he was not alone.
            It was ludicrous for him to even consider returning to Paxton Corners permanently. He’d worked hard to get to where he was—Chief of Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. He was forty-eight years old and realized his life’s dream. That should count for something. It should. He waited, but the emptiness inside matched the stillness around him. The realization that he had nothing to look forward to sent a chill through his six-foot frame and he shuddered.
            He stepped into the afternoon sun and headed toward the creek. If he didn’t move, he might freeze on the spot like Lot’s wife turned to a pillar of salt. As he walked through the tall grass, he worked at convincing himself these feelings were nothing more than normal grief over preparing his family homestead for sale. He endured too much change, too many losses these past few years. Once the dust settled again and he was back in Pittsburgh, he would be fine. That’s what he told himself. But he had taken enough courses in psychology to recognize bullshit when it hit him in the face.

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To read more about Wynn and to meet Trudi when they are reunited thirty years after they went their separate ways, get your copy of The Promise Tree at Wings ePress,, or B&

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