Promises to Keep

Tony’s fingers flew over the keyboard of his computer. The clickety-clack of the keys punctuated the whine from the little electric heater in the corner. Out of its metallic mouth a gentle breath of warm air flowed over the woodworking tools and assorted piles of integrated circuits, computer parts, handwritten plans, and detailed diagrams scattered in organized chaos on the top of Tony’s workbench.

Every once in a while the boy would stop and study the neat rows of words and numbers radiating in the soft amber glow of his computer screen. He’d chew on his bottom lip for a moment, then continue typing.

His invention sat heavily against the wall opposite the workbench. The tall wooden box with its forest of antennae, stacks of control panels, blinking lights, four metal cylinders, and maze of wiring gave the machine a battered and disorganized look.

The battered parts had fallen victim to “nonstandard operations,” as Tony called their close encounter with Noah’s ark. Other portions of the invention had been labeled as “Simonized”. Tie Li giggled whenever Tony referred to a broken lead or bent support frame using that word.

During the past few days, Voyager had been stripped down to its bare essentials, then, with painstaking attention to detail, put back together again. New parts had arrived in the mail. The boy hoped his calculations had been correct. He was running out of money. Last summer’s part-time job had earned him only so much.

“Tony?” Mr. Parks poked his head into the workshop. “I’m going to town. You need anything?”

“Uh . . . no . . . not today, Dad. Thanks for asking.”

Tony smiled at his father. “You taking Kim with you?”

“He said he didn’t want to go. I guess he gets kinda tired of sitting in the car during our weekly trip to visit Dr. McFerren in the city. Can’t say that I blame him. It is a long trip.

Tony stretched stiff muscles and turned a knob to darken the image on his screen. “Dad, can I ask you something?”

Mr. Parks entered the workshop and closed the door behind him. “Sure, son. I don’t know if I’ll have the answer, but I’ll try.”

Tony watched his father brush snow from his coat. He really liked his dad. A lot of kids at school talked down about their fathers. But Tony respected his. He knew his dad would be honest with him no matter what. He also knew his father would never try to cover up what he didn’t know. Truth had a security about it, even when it wasn’t what a guy wanted to hear.

Tony faced Mr. Parks. “What can I do to help Kim? I’m his brother. I feel like I should be doing something, but I don’t know what.”

The man sighed. “I don’t know what to tell you, son.

Kim is . . . hurting inside. He’s afraid to let others close to him because he thinks they’ll be taken away. At least that’s what Dr. McFerren says.”

Tony scratched his head thoughtfully. “I’m not going to go away. Tie Li isn’t either. You and Mom are adopting him. Why won’t he believe we all love him and want him to be a part of our family?”

Mr. Parks nodded in agreement. “But we have to remember he had another family once. I’m sure his father promised he’d never leave, and that the family would always be together, come what may. But sometimes life has a cruel way of breaking the strongest promises. Now Kim’s withdrawn into himself. He figures if he doesn’t need anybody, he can’t be hurt again.”

The boy was quiet for a moment, then spoke slowly. “I’m lucky, aren’t I? I have a great mom and dad, a neat farm to live on, my computer, and a wonderful sister, too. Why do I have it so good while other people suffer so much?”

Mr. Parks studied his son’s face. “I don’t know, Tony. I don’t have an answer for that question. I guess there are some things we weren’t meant to understand.”

The man turned to leave, then hesitated. “Tony, I don’t mean to make it sound like promises aren’t worth anything. To an honest man, a promise is as important as breathing. But things happen. Even honest men can’t control life and death.

“Kim is a member of our family now. Our responsibility is to keep the promises his first dad made to him.” The man’s tone became firm. “Some things even war can’t take away.”

Mr. Parks quietly closed the door behind him as he left. Tony sat in the stillness, listening to his father’s footsteps crunching on the packed snow outside the door. As the sound faded, the boy let out a long sigh, then turned back to his computer and began typing again.

Tie Li sat at the kitchen table watching her mother roll bread dough into gooey mounds. Rows of shiny pans waited nearby, ready to accept their loads for the oven.

The little girl’s chin rested on her folded hands. Blotches of white flour covered her brown cheeks and forehead. Even her long, dark hair was decorated with powdery highlights.

“I like bread,” she said, sticking her finger into the large mound beside her elbow. “First you play with it, then you eat it. It lots of fun.”

Mrs. Parks looked down at her helper. “Which do you like better, playing or eating?”

Tie Li rubbed her chin, absentmindedly applying another layer of flour to her face. “That a hard decision. When I play, I get hungry. When I eat, I get energy to play.

“What about studying and going to school? Don’t you like doing that, too?”

The girl looked up at her mother. “Is there school where I can just play and eat?”

Mrs. Parks laughed. “I don’t think so.”

Tie Li sighed and examined her dough encrusted finger. “Too bad. I’d get all A’s there.”

Before long, the fresh smell of baking bread filled the big yellow farmhouse. The afternoon passed quickly. Kitchens and cooking held almost as much fascination for the little girl as Tony and his workshop. But Tony had asked Tie Li to let him work alone on rebuilding Voyager. She knew how hard he concentrated when he was busy with an invention. Tie Li had readily agreed to keep out of sight.

She was eager for the machine to be back in working order. As evening shadows crept across the farmyard, Mrs. Parks asked Tie Li to find Tony and Kim and tell them to get ready for supper. The girl scurried up the stairs to the second floor. In the hallway, she stopped at the foot of the stairs leading to Kim’s attic room.

“Kim? Kim! Time to eat supper. I make a big loaf of bread for you. You’re gonna like it. Kim?” Tie Li waited for a response. “Kim? You up there?”

No voice answered from the top of the stairs. The girl started climbing the wooden passageway. “Hey, Kim. You sleeping?” Rounding the top of the stairs, Tie Li stopped in her tracks. The room had been torn apart. Clothes and papers littered the floor. The dresser lay tilted on its side. Glass from the broken mirror glistened from the folds of a rug pushed into the corner. Tie Li stepped back in horror. Stumbling down the attic stairs, she hurried into Tony’s room. Opening the window, she screamed into the frigid air, “Tony! Tony! Come quick!”

The door to the workshop burst open as Tony rushed into the yard. He looked up toward his window. “What is it, Tie Li? What’s the matter?”

Mrs. Parks raced up the stairs and ran to Tony’s room. “Tie Li, what’s happened? What’s going on?”

The girl stood trembling, tears leaving long, floury stains on her cheeks.

Tony sped up the stairs two at a time. “Tie Li, why are you crying? What’s the matter?”

The little girl pushed past him and ran down the hall to the stairway leading to the attic. Mrs. Parks and Tony followed close behind. They all reached Kim’s room at the same time.

The woman’s breath caught in her throat as she saw what was left of the attic room. Tony let out a low whistle. “What in the world happened here? It looks like someone tried to destroy this whole room.”

Tie Li sat down on the top stair, her hands over her eyes. “Where my brother?” she cried. “Where Kim?”

Tony noticed a piece of paper impaled on a nail where a picture used to hang. He walked over to it, trying not to step on the broken glass littering the floor. “Look, there’s writing on this.”

Tony handed the note to his mother. Bending close to the overturned lamp, she read the words scrawled across it.

“I can’t stay here. Don’t try to find me.”

Tie Li bolted down the stairs and ran back to Tony’s open window. “Kim!” she screamed toward the pastures. “Kim, come back. Don’t go away again. Come back. Please, come back!”

The wind lifted her cries from the warm light of the window and carried them over the barnyard, into the darkness.

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Promises to Keep

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