The Promise of a Star, 2019 Honorable Mention Adult Division
By Shannon Paterson Reagan
She’s coming home.
In just a couple of weeks now, she’ll be back and I’ll be there to greet her. It’s been a long time, of course, and a lot can happen in sixteen years. But after all this time, she’ll finally be in Wallace again and I’ll be ready.
I know she’ll remember.
I despise the mines—the filthy, back-breaking days in the bowels of the mountains that I’d rather be hiking on than tearing apart—but I have to report for work. Day after miserable day. My family needs the money. I need to see what I can slip into my pocket when nobody’s looking.
I know what I’m after. It’s a dark-violet hunk of rock. Not many people know it, but if a rock like that is cut and polished just right and held in the sunshine, you can see a star just below the surface. A star garnet, they say. The raw stones show up from time to time around the mine, but that’s not what the mine company cares about. No, Hecla is in the silver business. Besides, I’m not taking their silver, just a rock nobody else wants. Just a little something to make Judy’s eyes sparkle, the way they did the night we met.
It was 1925 and I was only five, so she would have been four. Our mothers were modeling at a fashion show for charity at the Elks Club in Wallace, and we were backstage. When the ladies came off stage in their borrowed fur coats, they’d hang them on a rack and pull on another, but one got tossed over a chair and Judy looked at me with a glimmer in her eyes. I told her not to, but she wrapped the fur around herself like a cape and strutted onto the stage into the blinding spotlights as if she’d been doing it every day of her life. I couldn’t see what she did out there after the curtain swung closed behind her, but I’ve never heard a crowd explode with joy the way I did that night. My mother used to say they would’ve raised more than a thousand dollars if only they’d had that little Judy on stage the whole time.
Both her parents loved the spotlight, so it’s no wonder she did too. I remember her father on stage at the Elks Club that same night. I got to watch from the back of the auditorium with my mother and he tap danced in a way I thought they only did in the movies. He’s dead now. I know it must tear her up. I heard they found him on a street corner right before Christmas, his money gone and his face bashed in.
Once she’s home, I’ll finally get to tell her how sorry I am about her father. We’ll sneak away from everyone and go hike up above town to talk, just like we would have if she’d stayed in Wallace. We’ll find wildflowers, and I’ll pick a blooming trillium to tuck behind her ear. We’ll talk about how good it is to see each other again and I’ll surprise her with the garnet and her eyes will sparkle with happy tears. I’ll ask whether she wants to live in Wallace or Burke and promise her the finest house in either town, and she’ll say, Just come with me. Let’s leave all this. There’s more to the world than these old mining towns.
She knows, because she’s seen it.
Then I’ll show her the best part of her garnet: the star inside. A star that shines under bright lights, just like her.
She’s always had a thing for pretty rocks. We used to go down to the river to skip them, but she’d never let me chuck a pretty one. She’d tuck those in her coat pocket. That’s what we were doing the day she told me she was leaving. I asked where she was going, and she said she couldn’t remember the name of the town, San something-or-other, but it was in California, she was sure of that. She promised when she was old enough, she’d come back. She made me promise that when she did, if I wasn’t already married, she and I would elope. So I have to be ready. We made a promise to each other.
The day she left town, I snuck down to the depot and watched her from around the corner. Her curls were especially wild that day, so she was easy to spot. She took her mother’s hand to board the train, then she was gone. I went straight to the river after that. Next thing I knew, Betty O’Neil was right there at the river too. I didn’t say a word, and neither did she. We silently skipped the flattest rocks we could find from one side of the Coeur d’Alene to the other. Most of mine flew right across to the other bank, I was so angry, but Betty’s would usually sink. She never got better at skipping either, even though she’d follow my sisters and me down to the river almost every day after school. Come to think of it, she followed me almost everywhere that spring and summer.
I finally see it. After weeks of keeping my eyes sharp in the mine, a dark, promising-looking rock drops out of the rail car from a big load of ore. No one’s paying attention so I crouch behind the car, scoop it up and take it to Larry Johnson’s gem shop the next day before work.
En cabochon, is what he calls it. A way to cut the stone in a rounded shape, so the star reveals itself. A totally different way of gem cutting, he said. No hard facet lines. I cross my fingers, hoping the star turns out nice and clear with six rays, not just four. A girl like Judy deserves the best.
He says he’ll waive the cost of labor on the stone if I can slip another one or two out of the mine that he could cut, polish and sell. Seems like a decent deal, even if it means I have to sneak around during my shifts again. I agree. I hand over my secret savings to pay for the silver band, and he puts the ring in a hinged jewelry box. I walk out of the shop into the sunlight, where the star inside the garnet comes alive. Six rays slide around its surface like liquid mercury.
“Hi, Bud. What are you looking at?”
It’s Betty O’Neil.
I snap the box shut, jam it into my coat pocket and lie.
“It’s a surprise. For my mother. Her birthday.”
“You’re a good son, Bud.”
Thankfully, she keeps walking and I don’t have to say any more than that. I go right home, hide the box in the back of my dresser drawer and don’t look at it again for four days, until June 19.
The day Judy comes home.
I know my mother and sisters are going downtown too, but I tell my mother I’m leaving early because Pop’s out of cigarettes and he wants me to pick some up. With Judy’s ring tucked into my pocket, I walk into the drizzle and head straight for the depot where I can sit on a bench and wait. After waiting sixteen years, another couple hours can’t hurt.
I cross the river and settle in on a bench that’s tucked far enough under the depot roof to keep me dry. I watch the sulky gray clouds part to tease me with blue sky, then smash together again to threaten more rain, as people start to crowd the platform holding big sheets of cardboard. Their signs read welcome back and wallace welcomes you and welcome home, lana.
I wish they wouldn’t call her that.
Soon the train platform is so crowded that I can’t comfortably sit on the bench anymore, because I’m looking at a bunch of backsides. I stand up and try to maneuver to the edge of the crowd as the clouds break for good and sun drenches the depot. Signs are quivering above everyone’s heads as if there’s electric current running through them and I spot my mother and sisters. The police chief and a couple of his deputies push through to the edge of the platform, just as I hear the distant rumble of the train.
The crowd is getting louder now. The police chief is too, shooing everyone back from the tracks.
“All right now, move it back, folks!”
I retreat a couple of steps with everyone else and check for the ring box in my pocket, just as the train comes into view. The welcome signs are bobbing up and down now, and people are starting to hoot and yell. I catch sight of my littlest sister and she’s clapping her hands and hopping, even though she probably can’t see a thing except for the rainbow arching over everyone’s heads, a display so brilliant it seems as if God himself ordered it just for Judy’s arrival. The train eases up to the platform, the brakes give out a whoosh, and it seems like forever before she appears in the doorway.
When she does, I feel like I can’t breathe.
She smiles and waves, and the whole town shrieks and hollers. Her wild brown curls are gone now, replaced by sleek, blonde waves, but it’s her smile that floors me.
Her smile is the same.
“Over here, Lana!”
Once she and her mother descend the steps, all I can see is the caps of the police chief and his deputies, escorting them through the mass of people. I can’t get to her. I’m glad I stuck to the edge of the crowd though, because I slip around the back of the ruckus and wait by the depot door. I can tell the police are getting closer, which means she must be too. I take a step forward, just enough to be close when she comes by.
Then the crowd breaks and I see her.
She’s smiling and murmuring hello as the police chief leads the way and deputies hold people at arm’s length. I touch the ring box to make sure it’s there. Before I know it, she’s in front of me and I try to remember how to talk.
She stops. The crowd squirms around her and a cop tries to put an arm in front of me to fend me off like the others, but I’m not pushing to get closer to her. I’m not moving at all. Judy and I are frozen, our eyes locked.
“What did you call me?”
“Judy, it’s me. It’s Bud. I was hoping maybe we could have a chance to catch up later —”
“Did you say your name is Bud?”
“Yeah, Bud Scott. Remember?”
When the police chief realizes he’s several steps ahead of his charge, he turns back towards us and the cop next to me gets antsy.
“Come on, kid. We’ve got to move Miss Turner along,” he says.
I didn’t plan to give her the ring here, but I don’t have much time, and if she sees it, I know she’ll remember our promise. I wrestle the box from my pocket, and she gasps as I pull it out.
“Listen,” the police chief hisses, “I gotta get her to the hotel. I’m on a timeline here.”
I ignore the chief, and crack open the box.
“Oh! Look Mama, another one!” she giggles, as her mother peers over her shoulder. “If I had a nickel for every proposal, I’d have no need to make pictures at all.” Then she leans in and whispers, “You’re sweet.”
The next thing I know, the cop has elbowed me back and the police chief is standing on a bench shouting, “Listen, everybody! Please come see Miss Lana Turner at the commemoration at City Hall at two o’clock! For now, we’d like to help Miss Turner to her hotel for a short rest before the ceremony, so please let her by! Thank you, folks!”
Everyone obeys the chief as I trail behind her yelling, “Judy! Judy, wait!” But the deputies keep going and so does she. Instead of heading towards city hall with everyone else in town, I end up at the river, where this whole stupid idea began.
I can’t believe I was such a fool.
I attempt to skip a rock across the water, but my humiliation is still so sharp that it smashes into the opposite shore instead.
“I think you’re overthrowing it,” says a voice behind me. I turn to see Betty scanning the stones at her feet for something smooth and skippable. “Here. Try this one.” She hands over a rock the size of a silver dollar, but instead of skipping it, I toss it up and down in my palm a few times.
“I suppose you saw what a damn fool I am. The whole town did.”
“Bud Scott, you are a lot of things. But you are not a damn fool!”
She’s usually so meek and soft-spoken that the tone of her voice stuns me. I realize I’ve stopped tossing the stone and I’m staring at her, so I wheel around and whip it across the river. It hops one, two, three times, then sinks.
“There, that’s more like it,” she says.
“It was a pact.”
“A pact.” I watch ripples collide on the surface, then turn to look at Betty. “We promised each other we’d get married when she came home. If we weren’t already married to someone else.” I look down to find another rock to skip, but end up kicking at them instead. “I’m a damn fool to believe she’d be sitting around movie sets, just pining away for me, hoping like hell to get out of Hollywood and back to me in Wallace, Idaho. A goddamn fool.”
“Bud, can I tell you something?”
I don’t answer. I dig the toe of my boot into the grit of the riverbank and Betty puts a hand on my elbow.
“Bud, what you did was more romantic than all of her movies put together.”
I look up at Betty’s soft gray eyes and realize my mistake. I‘d spent all this time planning for a future with the wrong girl.
I take a deep breath while turning the ring box around in my coat pocket. I’m tempted to see how far it’ll skip across the river, but I come up with a better idea.
“Betty, what do you say to a hike? Up the hill above town?”
The breeze tousles her curls.
“I’ve always been better at picking flowers than skipping rocks,” she says, and sweeps a lock of hair from her forehead. Then she smiles.
“I’d love to.”