When I said it, I didn't mean it. I just wanted to go home after another long day in the ICU. But then, I didn't know it was really the end this time. "Promise me something," my mom said, her voice cracking, a whisper over the hum of machines that latched onto her body. Sometimes I thought those cords and tubes and electrodes were the only things holding her here. Without them, she'd slip away like a balloon string sliding from a child's fingers.
I nodded, ignoring the pain in my wrist from grasping her hand over the railing. It was an old pain, a dull ache I'd gotten used to, just like the way my spine begged to be stretched and my lungs longed for air without the scent of rubbing alcohol and gauze. Waiting in a hospital for a few months will do that to a body, I guess-even the body of a ten-year-old.
Mom's fingers were frail, and her skin seemed too big for the bones underneath. She smiled, pulling at the tape holding a tube into her nose. "Promise me, Shelby, that you'll do three things. For always, from here on out." She spoke like this a lot-like it was the end. It used to scare me, but after so many months I'd sort of gotten used to it.
I kissed her palm the way she used to kiss mine when she put me to bed. Back when I let her read me picture books long after I'd lost interest in them just because I could tell how happy it made her.
"Sure," I said, ignoring my dad at the door. He was giving me the "five minutes" hand gesture in between intense whispers to a nurse.
My mom rubbed my palm with her thumb, then continued. "Three things. Listen to your father, Shel. Love and listen to him." She paused, and remnants of a laugh laced her voice when she spoke again. "Poor thing doesn't know what to do with a girl." She reached up and ran a hand through the tips of my overgrown hair.
"Okay, Mom," I sighed. "But if this is about that thing with the makeup, it's not fair. Dad says I can't wear any."
My mother shook her head. "I know. It's not about that. Listen-second thing: Love as much as possible."
I raised an eyebrow. My mom had always been a dreamer, but this was a little intense even for her.
"Okay, I will," I said as my dad held up two fingers. "I have to go soon-"
"And last," she cut me off, her lips trembling a little, like she'd cry if she had the energy, "live without restraint. Do you understand what I mean?"
Not really-I had no clue what she was talking about. One minute left. I stood, leaning over to hug her-she wasn't much bigger than me, and my arms felt strong around her body. "Sure."
"I mean it, Shelby. Promise me," she said as she hugged me back, her voice growing louder than it'd been all summer, desperation on every syllable.
"Okay, Mom," I said, sincere. "I promise. All three things. I'll do them."
My mom relaxed. The nurse walked in to inject her IV with a clear fluid. I unwound my arms from Mom's body and waved good-bye as my dad took my place by her bed to bid his own farewell. Two tiny tears dripped down Mom's cheeks; the nurse wiped them away without hesitation.
When I said it, I didn't mean it. I didn't know it was really the end. And now…how could I possibly break a promise made to a dying woman?
* * *
"Who's that?" Ruby asks as we pull up to my house. There's a tan car in the driveway.
"I don't know," I say, shrugging. "Probably a committee person. Come in with me. I don't want to get stuck in the small-talk loop."
"Committee people" are the only people who visit my house. My dad doesn't really have friends, exactly-he has fellow board members. Volunteers. Since Mom died, he's been on just about every panel and committee and board that the community has to offer. He says he does it because all the volunteering that people did after Mom died helped him-and he's right, there's something innately therapeutic about an endless stream of casseroles. But I think he really does it because he wants to be out of the house. The more time he gives to the community, the less time he has to think about the family that broke in his hands.
Jonas parks the car and we walk to the house, crushing the dandelions that occupy more space on our lawn than actual grass. I push the front door open. My dad is sitting at the dining room table, which is covered in thick stacks of pink-and-gold paper. In the chair beside him is a man I vaguely recognize-one of the pastors from a nearby church.
"Shelby!" the pastor says. I just smile because I don't remember his name. "We were wondering when you'd get back. We'd love to get your thoughts on the Princess Ball while we're still in the planning stages. The church is the lead sponsor this year. We're really excited about it."
Ah, the Princess Ball. A father-daughter dance and a Ridgebrook tradition-well, sort of. It used to be huge, but now only a fraction of the girls at school go, always the summer before senior year. I figured I'd skip it, since attending a ball with Dad seems like a contender for a Top Ten Awkward Moments list. Apparently, Dad's awkward radar isn't as accurate as mine.
"Here," Dad says, handing me a pink-and-gold pamphlet. It clashes with the faded wallpaper in our dining room. On the cover is a young girl looking lovingly up at a graying model of a man, the kind who's on shaving cream commercials.
"Your dad has offered to coordinate all the events, and the decorating committee is already throwing around ideas," the pastor says, smiling. The way he says the word event makes it seem like it could be either a carnival or a beheading. I rub the glossy paper between my fingers for a moment.
"Um…okay…" I answer cautiously-obviously, I'm going to try to get out of going. I don't want to get Dad's hopes up by appearing excited. Ruby and Jonas shift behind me.
Dad opens his mouth, but words don't come as easily as they did for the pastor. He hesitates. "Great. Great. It'll be fun." He pauses for a long time. "Where were you this morning?" Damn. He almost never asks where I've been.
"We were just swimming," Jonas says, stepping in quickly. If he tells Dad, then if Dad says "Don't do that again," it means it's directed at Jonas, not me. Unless he makes it "Don't do that again, Shelby." Yeah, that's a loophole, but Jonas and I decided long ago that when it comes to the Promises, loopholes are nothing to shy away from.
"Oh. Fun," Dad says, sounding a bit confused. He turns back to the pastor. "Well, we'll touch base again in a few weeks?"
"Sounds great, Doug. See you then. Bye, Shelby!"
"Bye…um…sir." Jonas says you can never go wrong calling adults "ma'am" or "sir." Ruby says you can never go wrong calling someone "baby." I think, in this case, Jonas is right.
The pastor leaves, so I make a break for my bedroom, Ruby and Jonas behind me. We shut the door. Ruby and I slump onto the bed while Jonas takes my desk chair after delicately tipping a pile of clothes off it.
"Are you going to the Princess Ball?" I ask Ruby.
She laughs and raises her eyebrows at me. "Seriously? Me? One, I don't wear pantyhose, and I'm pretty sure Princess Ball security checks that at the door. And secondly, can you imagine my dad at that thing? I don't think he even owns a suit. I don't think he even owns a button-down shirt, come to think of it."
"Let me see it," Jonas says, reaching out for the pamphlet. I hand it over.
"Who does go to it now, anyway?" Ruby asks.
"I think the church's youth group. Some people from school still go, too. I don't really know," I say, pausing. "My mom went."
"Really?" Ruby says.
"Yeah. Somewhere we've got a picture of her at it in a dress with puffy sleeves. It's pretty eighties-tastic."
"You're all supposed to wear white. Or, at least, it's advised," Jonas says, pointing to the pamphlet.
"Though looks like the puffy sleeves are optional." He folds down one side and continues to read the back. Ruby stretches for my hairbrush and runs it through her hair.
"You make vows at this thing?" Jonas says.
"Vows? No, nothing that serious. I think you're supposed to, like…learn to be close or to respect each other or to only fight on Tuesday nights or something. Not really sure how a ball teaches you that, but-"
"No, Shel-you take vows. It says so on the back," Jonas says, looking serious.
I rise and go to my desk, sitting on the edge while Jonas holds the pamphlet out for me to see. On the back, right above the logos of all the Princess Ball sponsors-the church's the largest and centered-are three sentences in a swirly font that's hard to read.
After a night of dinner and dancing,
the Princess Ball concludes with a ceremony:
Fathers will vow to be strong, responsible men of integrity
and to play a central role in their daughters' lives.
Daughters will vow to look to their fathers for guidance
and to live whole, pure lives.
Okay, no big deal-looking to your father for guidance, that's pretty similar to Promise One anyway. But living a pure life? What does that mean? I snatch the pamphlet away from Jonas and flip it over, looking for some sort of code or glossary. Nothing.
And it's the complete lack of explanation that makes me realize exactly what pure means.
"Sex. That's what they mean, right? I promise Dad I won't have sex," I say flatly.
"Looks like it. I guess if the church is the lead sponsor, they can throw some antisex stuff into the ball."
"So what do I do?" I ask, my voice rising. "I can't vow something to Dad. I'll have to keep it or I break Promise One."
"Just talk him out of it soon-tonight, before he can get too excited about it. That's all you can do, unless you…I mean, you could take the vow…." Jonas says.
"I don't want to vow anything that has to do with my lady parts," I answer quickly. The idea makes me shiver, which sends Ruby into a giggling fit. I look at the happy father-daughter couple on the cover. Dad and I could never be like that anyhow.
"I wouldn't worry about it. Your dad has never put up much of a fight before," Ruby adds. "And besides, you're not the only daughter who isn't going to be into this thing. Not to mention that half a zillion girls in this town have no purity left to promise." Ruby snickers, shaking her head.
"Very true," Jonas says. Some of the girls at the church who go to Ridgebrook with Jonas and me have reputations that rival porn stars'. I'm sure a lot of it is just talk, but a few have the hickeys and-rumor has it-the herpes to prove it.
We make fun of the pamphlet for a while, wondering who chose the stock art image of the father and daughter on the front and imagining it's really an ad for something funnier, like laxatives or juniors' push-up bras. I walk them out, then turn to sigh at the table covered with Princess Ball paperwork. This is a problem. I've got to solve it tonight.
The doorbell rings an hour later-pizza delivery guy, as per usual on a Sunday night. It's a little later than normal, I guess because Dad got caught up in the Princess Ball planning. He seems to be feeling the effects of the slight change in schedule when I join him in the kitchen. Two hours later than normal throws a wrench in his love of total, constant order.
I guess that's the only other way Dad and I are alike-when the world fell into oblivion, he grabbed onto something, too: predictability. He's a computer programmer, a job that involves ties and coats and routines of waking up, going to bed, eating the same food, and not daring to have a conversation with me that we haven't rehearsed a thousand times before. Keep things the same so the world can't slip away again.
We fill our plates with pizza, then slide into beaten kitchen chairs. Dad immediately picks up the most recent issue of Popular Mechanics while I flip on the tiny, sauce-spattered kitchen television.
I run a fingertip along the floral pattern at my plate's edge, trying to muster up the courage to break the routine and talk about the Princess Ball. I glance in Dad's direction as he nods in agreement with whatever science-tastic article he's reading. He folds a slice of pizza in half and takes an enormous bite. Table manners are not his specialty. It's a good thing he doesn't date.
Doesn't date anymore, rather. At his sister's request, he tried, three whole times, but it didn't go well. I know not because he told me, but because I can pick up a phone receiver and listen in with ninjalike silence-specifically, when Dad called my spastic aunt Kaycee to tell her how the dates went.
Date number one: Told the woman he thought she looked beautiful because "most women are just way too thin these days, but not you!" I believe this was followed by some sort of incident involving dinner rolls.
Date number two: Admitted to having a teenage daughter only a few moments in. Painful for me to hear, but I'm not stupid. Single men with babies reel in women. Single men with teenagers are lady repellent.
Date number three: Wasn't really his fault, but Dad accidentally ate shellfish. He swelled up so fast that he had to be taken away in an ambulance. It's hard to be romantic when your tongue has swelled to the size of an elephant's trunk.
After the third date, he reported to his sister that, clearly, he was cursed. I doubt he would have continued dating even if things had gone perfectly. As far as my father is concerned, my mom was the only woman for him. He loved her brand of disorder: shoes in the middle of the floor, cookies she snatched from the oven before they were done, oldies music she played so loud the neighbors complained, nighttime fairy tales with endings she changed to make them more interesting for me….
But despite my dad's addiction to order, I have to do something unexpected tonight-speak over dinner. I turn down the TV as soon as the show goes to commercial. Nip it in the bud, before he gets too invested in the idea.
"So, I wanted to talk to you about this Princess Ball thing," I say.
Dad looks up at me, confused. I'm not sure I've ever uttered the phrase "I wanted to talk to you" to him.
"Sure, what about it?" he asks.
"Well, is it…um…required?" I ask.
"Well, it is a tradition…oh, and speaking of…" Dad rustles around in the leather briefcase he always carries with him-I privately call it a man-purse. "We each have one of these to fill out." He hands me a packet.
I read the letters splayed across the top:
"They're personal questions. I don't know what your packet asks…. We're supposed to go over them together closer to the ball…." My dad trails off and the room fills with an awkward silence. "There's no right or wrong answer, though." He says that, but whenever your parents are involved, there's a right and a wrong answer. Especially with my dad.
I inhale and continue. "So…I mean, you're sure about this? Did you see on the back that this year it involves…vows?"
"Oh, the vows-yes, the committee thought it'd be nice to end with a little more ceremony than in years past. All the fathers and daughters recite vows after the last dance."
So it is out loud. Which means it's definitely official-Promise One is in effect.
"I mean, it just seems like an awful lot to plan, for one? And this packet…I've got finals….I don't know if I'll be much help." I don't mention the fact that finals will go on for only another two days.
"It is a lot to plan, true! Especially since we only have five weeks-"
"Five weeks?" I snap, causing Dad to jump.
"Of course. It's smack in the middle of summer. Always has been-I thought you knew. And last year's committee really left us hanging. Luckily the church is donating their events room for the actual dance, so that's taken care of, but none of the other events have been set up."
Events? There are events at these things? I try another approach. "Sure, sure. But maybe the planning and…um…attending…should be done by someone who actually likes this sort of thing? I didn't even go to homecoming."
"You went that one year," he says.
"That was a winter formal. I only went because Jonas's mom said he had to go, so we went together."
"Oh. Well, this is a different sort of thing," Dad says.
I didn't want it to come to this, but it's time to break out the sure shot. The winning topic. The one discussion guaranteed to get fathers everywhere to shut down and shut up.
"So, these vows…how do they work?"
"Oh, it's pretty simple. At the end of the night, the fathers and daughters will read vows to each other. You don't have to memorize anything. It's all off a card we'll get."
"Yeah, but…the thing about being ‘pure.' What does that mean, exactly?"
My dad's face turns red, and hints of sweat emerge on his brow. He ruffles the edges of his magazine.
"Well, um, it means to not do things like drink underage. Or do drugs. Or…have sex." When he says "have sex" his voice sounds stretched out and pained, like plastic wrap pulled tight.
Great. I wasn't planning on starting up a meth habit or anything, but I would like to potentially have a beer in college. Still, promising to wear an invisible chastity belt is the worst of the three. Come on dad, you know this is stupid.…
After a few moments of the most uncomfortable silence I've ever experienced, Dad doesn't give in and say I don't have to attend. I've got to dig deeper.
"So, what if I have questions about all that, then? Should I ask you, then, since…well, if I'm swearing my purity to you?"
"Um, well, there's no need to discuss those things, really, because you'll know more about them when you're older and ready to get married and those questions need to be answered."
"But what if I'm curious about those things now?" I press. Come on, Dad, crack.
He reopens Popular Mechanics. "Well, Shelby, that's why I got you that book."
That book. Your Body, Yourself. Having never discussed the whole period thing with my mom before she died, I went to the bathroom once and was pretty sure I was hemorrhaging to death. I was eleven. I screamed a lot, cried a lot, and begged my dad to drive me to the hospital. Instead, he drove me to the bookstore and Aunt Kaycee's house.
"Yeah…the book…" I trail off. "I guess I'm just saying that it's okay if you want to skip the ball. That's all."
My dad sighs and looks up from the magazine, practically begging me to end the conversation. "I really want you to do the Princess Ball, Shelby. Your mom did it. Besides, it'll be fun. You'll get to wear a fancy dress."
I consider reminding Dad that I'm not five, so the fancy dress doesn't quite have the same appeal. I consider yelling at him that the very idea of a Princess Ball is ridiculously misogynistic. I consider breaking Promise One and ignoring the fact that he's blatantly said he wants me to go to the ball, ignoring the Promise to love and listen to him.
But instead, I force a tight smile, nod, and rise. My mom went to the Princess Ball; he wants me to go. How can I argue with that? I set my plate down in the sink and grab another Coke from the fridge, then bolt to my bedroom. Don't panic. Don't panic. Don't panic yet, at least. Wait till you're in the room.…
I shut the door.
Okay. Panic now.
I slam the Coke can down on my desk and open it, taking a long drink, as if it's something stronger than colored corn syrup.
He said it. I can't just pretend he doesn't want me to do it, because he said it. Which means Promise One is in effect. Which means holy crap, I have to take a vow of purity to my dad. And I'll have to keep that vow because of Promise One.
It won't be so bad, an inner voice tries to calm my quickly heightening nerves. You can wait till you're twenty-one to drink. And plenty of girls get married as virgins.
Yeah, a dark voice adds. Those girls get married at twenty-two, not thirty-five. And you don't want to get married at twenty-two. You've got a Life List to get through.
Fine then, be a thirty-five-year-old virgin. Or break Promise Three by getting married young and not living life without restraint. Young married couples can't just pick up and travel or adventure or explore-they have jobs and obligations and Tupperware parties. Either way, a Promise gets broken.
I feel like I'm being tested-how crucial is it that I keep the Promises to me, really? This is different from jumping off trestles or memorizing constellations-this is big.
How important are they, Shelby? It sounds like my mom's voice is asking me. I imagine her in her Princess Ball gown, puffy sleeves and all.
They're important. They're the most important thing to me. They're all I have left of you, Mom.
I have to find a loophole. I've got to find a way to keep both Promises, no matter what it costs me.
Main image via Waseef Akhtar/Shutterstock.