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Friday, May 2, 2014

Birthday Promises


An animal-like scream pierced the air and Julia dove for cover. A bloody hand descended, edging over the desk where she trembled in fear. It was gnarled with age and lord knew what else. Feet kicking out in front of her, Julie scrabbled back in the corner, as far as she could get from the zombie looking appendage. It was no use. The fingers caught the hem of her apron and began to pull.

“Cut. That’s it for today.”


Julia wiped the sweat that had begun to trickle down her forehead five takes earlier. Someone arrived to disengage the mechanical hand from Julia’s clothes and she pulled herself out from under the desk, rolling her shoulders to release their tension.

“Thank God you finally got that wretched hand working, Arnie. I’m not sure my body could have handled another take.”
She smiled to relieve some of the sting from her words, but she was serious. It had been a long day of throwing herself to the ground over and over while the technicians tried to fix the hand that kept jerking to a stop before actually grabbing her.

“You were brilliant as always, Julia.”
Julia wanted to roll her eyes at the director’s statement. Sure. It takes all kinds of talent to yell like a banshee and hit the ground like an anchor. The sensation of tunnel vision was threatening to return, so Julia shook her head and shrugged.

“Thanks Arnie. You know I love working with you.” And it was true. If she had to do thriller movies, she was happy to at least be working with the tanned, eighty-six year old genius. There was something about his direction that made even the most redundant script come alive.
Julia scrubbed the make-up off her face. And, not caring that her normally shiny-clean, brown hair still had flecks of fake blood and dirt in it, twisted it into a ponytail. She grabbed her stuff from her studio locker and plugged her nose to block out the smoke which permeated the LA air after a slew of unexpected springtime fires. Back in Oregon she’d be lounging in the cool sunshine, watching the robins build their nests. Or perhaps she’d be cuddled up inside listening to the rain. Either way, she wouldn’t be facing an hour long commute in smog so thick it was like fog. She’d be reading a great book. Not a thriller, a nice, steamy, rose-colored glasses sort of romance. The kind of story Noah knew how to tell.

Noah! For the last few months he’d be constantly in her thoughts. Today though, on his birthday, she knew she would finally need to make the phone call she’d been avoiding. Her hand dropped from its spot holding her nose, to the pocket where she kept her cell phone. It had been so long since she’d last called him that she had to search for his number in her contact list.
Did she want him to answer or not? Perhaps he’d forgotten.

“Julianna!” It must have been the artist in him; he was the only person who used her full name.
“Noah. Happy Birthday.”

Since her birthday was a week after his she always got the first call. It was a tradition. And no matter how infrequently they spoke during the year, they never missed each other’s birthdays. Perhaps it had something to do with the promise they’d made so many years ago, back when they were too young to know better. It seemed unlikely Noah even remembered the clich├ęd promise. After all, twenty years old was a long, long way from thirty-five. Julia was sure they’d both since realized that marriage was to be taken more seriously than their youthful pledge would have others believe.
“So, what amazing birthday plans do you have?” she asked.

“Ahhh, well, as you know, this is a big one.”
So he did remember! Julia’s stomach fluttered and she took a big breath, then heard Noah laugh on the other end.

“Relax! You’re still thirty-four for one precious week. Enjoy your freedom. In fact, I can picture you now; top down on your Mercedes, hair gleaming in that LA sun, nails bitten to the quick.”
“Well, you needn’t point out that last part.” She huffed, curling her fingers under the steering wheel though there was no one there to see the blunt nails but her. “And for your information the top is up to keep out the toxic mix of smog and smoke.”

“Riiiiight. I heard there was a fire. But you’re okay right?”
“Just fine, though I’m missing home right now.”

“Home? Aren’t you in LA?”
“No, I mean Portland. You know, where you are.” She visualized him in his loft in the Pearl. He’d have his computer open and be unconsciously tapping his toe along to some jazz music while staring vacantly off into space.

“Well.” Noah’s voice softened and sounded as far away as it was. “I’m not in Portland much anymore. I’ve been doing a lot of book signings. It’s just easier to be gone, you know?”
“So, still the same then?”

“Same, same.” The false cheer in his voice was hollow even to her ears.
“Sounds lonely.” Shoot, she shouldn’t have said that. She knew exactly where it would lead. Still, they were friends, and she cared for him… was worried about him.

“No worries Julianna. Just because my life is ready for a change doesn’t mean I’ll hold you to the promise.”
Julia wanted to cry. If only he knew how much she desperately needed change. She talked with her counselor about it every single week. It was the theme of her life. And yet she found she couldn’t quite take the next step.

“I’m surprised you remembered.” She said quietly.
“Like I could forget.” His wry laugh sounded like a cough it was so abrupt. “It’s all I’ve been thinking about for months now.”

“Do you think...? I mean, maybe we should get together. You know, give each other some courage to decide.”
“What!” Noah’s shock was so powerful it had probably shorted out a cell tower somewhere. “I thought things were going well for you and Mark.”

Tears came to Julia’s eyes and she bit her lip hard to keep from really breaking down.
“I didn’t want to say anything when we talked last time. I thought… I thought we could still fix it. I thought I could make it better.”

But how did one make cheating better? It was like silly string wrapped around her. Every time she tried to rid herself of the hurt and distrust, she’d find it attached to some new area of her life. He said she wasn’t trying, but that just wasn’t true. She’d been fighting like a pit bull for months now and was beginning to feel like the horrified victim she was playing in her most recent movie.
“So is it…” Noah didn’t have to finish the question. She knew what he was asking and why.

“Yes. It’s way past time for it to be over.” The freedom of simply saying those words aloud made her want to put the top down on the car, as he’d suggested, and drive until she hit the Made in Portland sign.
“Come to Portland,” he said, as if reading her thoughts. “We need to talk.”

“I’ll be your birthday present,” she said wryly. “Don’t start celebrating without me.”
* * *

Arnie was surprisingly flexible when she called to tell him she was heading out of town till Tuesday. “I knew something was going on. Your scream had an even more frightening chill in it than usual.”

Free of the smog and smoke that had haunted her in LA she stopped briefly in Santa Barbara to lower the top before getting on with the drive. She turned the music up louder to compensate for the wind. She would never have blasted it in LA. Celine Dion just wasn’t something everyone enjoyed as much as she did.
Singing along to the music, sun warming her face, the power of the car responding easily to her slightest move, Julia felt her mind begin to expand beyond the beautiful views that surrounded her. She and Mark had made this drive. Or at least this part of the drive. They’d stopped in San Francisco and they’d acted like kids, going to all of the tourist attractions- even riding the carousel at Pier 39. They’d talked about kids and travel and work. The plans they had made on that trip had bound Julia to him even when everything else had fallen apart.

Julia’s hair, freed of the tight ponytail, flew in the wind as she shook her head in both disbelief and anguish. Things had seemed so perfect for a while. It was still almost impossible to believe it could have unraveled so quickly. Her counselor told her what she felt was grief. But mostly Julia thought she felt confusion. Well, that and distrust. It was one of the things that had kept her from calling Noah to vent and seek support. The ground of all of her relationships felt as shaky as the ground beneath the last 6 point earthquake that had rocked Southern California.
Ahead of her Julia saw a sign for u-pick strawberries. She turned off highway 101 and wound up a hill, following where the signs pointed her. Direction feels good, she thought, smiling at the simple pleasure of knowing where she was going. She planned to spend the night in Napa, cutting over to I-5, a less scenic but much quicker route, to finish her drive to Portland the following day.

She parked the Mercedes next to a quaint shack which advertised jams, frozen berries, and early vegetable starts. A few minutes picking strawberries wouldn’t kill her, she thought, ready to stretch her legs out after 6 hours in the car. A cute girl wearing overalls and sparkly high-tops handed her a basket and pointed her to row after row of berry bushes.
Kneeling in the soft dirt, Julia lifted the leaves to get at the juicy red fruit. One for me, one for the basket. She smiled as the juice ran down her chin. Hopefully they didn’t mind her eating a few since the red stain would be a giveaway that she’d been sneaking them. She’d only made it down a row when her phone rang. Thinking it was Noah, trying to hurry her, she answered with a bubbly, “Hiya. I’m almost halfway.” It was a bit of an exaggeration but close enough that she didn’t feel too guilty.

“Halfway where?”
Mark’s questioning tone was like a bucket of ice water over her sunny mood.

“I’m going home for the weekend,” she said. Julia didn’t know why she felt defensive. “It’s not like you are even around this weekend.” He was on another of his many business trips of late that Julia had stopped believing had anything to do with business.
“I came home.”

Once again the idea of home struck Julia. They might live in the same house, but it had stopped being home many long months earlier.
“Okay.” She really wasn’t sure what else to say.

“I thought you’d be here. You could have called.”
“Mark, when exactly was the last time you called to tell me where you were going to be? I’ve stayed home the last four weekends thinking you would be around, and never heard a word about your extended trip until Monday morning when you showed up to grab more clothes.”

“I’ve told you, business is lousy right now. I need to be there when my customers call.”
He’d completely skipped over the point about a phone call to apologize, or to even just let her know.

“Right. So, now there’s something I need to do.”
“Ahhhh. Now I see. You’re going to visit him, aren’t you?” Mark spit the name out like it was something disgusting; like she was the one sneaking around behind his back rather than the other way around.

“Yes. In fact, for the first time in a year I’m going to go visit Noah. If you’d been around we could have gone together. But obviously you had more important, uh, plans.”
Julia wiped the dirt off her hands and picked up her rather small basket of berries. The moment was ruined, like grocery store fruit, processed to the point where it held no essence of its original beauty.

“There’s that tone I know and love,” Mark said. Julia could picture the sneer narrowing his otherwise huge blue eyes. “I knew that’s what this was all about. You’re never going to get over this, are you Julia?”
Whereas the thought made Julia sad, Mark’s guilt translated to anger. Julia pinched the bridge of her nose to ward off the headache she could feel sitting there.

“No Mark. I don’t think I am. Maybe you should use the time alone this weekend to pack.”
The words hung there. It was obviously not what he had expected to hear. Maybe he’d grown used to the discussions that always deteriorated into arguments. But Julia was too tired to do it anymore. Like she’d told Noah, she was done.

“I’ll call you next week when I return.” She pressed end, wishing it were that simple to finish things in real life.
* * *
Too tired to do anything more than fall into bed, Julia awoke the next morning still dressed in the sweats she had thrown on when she checked into the hotel the night before. The cool early-morning spring temperature felt fresh, so she pulled the top back on the convertible and let the wind draw out any leftover angst from the day before.

Having flown back from wherever he’d been hiding out, Noah was waiting for her when she got to his place in the early afternoon. He opened the door before she even knocked and pulled her into a huge hug. His height encompassed her and she let herself melt into his solid strength.  Dark hair, green eyes, and pale skin… whether he knew he was gorgeous or not, it really didn’t matter to him. He was a quiet, earthy sort of guy for whom looks mattered only as a means of describing his characters.
“Noah?” Her voice was muffled in his large Portlandia sweatshirt which smelled of fabric softener.

“I know,” he said, petting her hair to comfort her.
“No… I mean, I can’t breathe.” She laughed.

He pulled back, laughing too, but still not entirely letting go. Julia tilted her head up to see his face.
“Oh Julianna, I’m so glad to see you.”
“Me too!” She stood on her tiptoes to give him a kiss on the cheek. “Happy Belated Birthday!”

“Come in.” He stood aside and ushered her into the large open room that was part living, dining, kitchen, and game room all in one. It was devoid of personal items, except for a photo of Noah with a beautiful girl.
Julia walked over to the photo to study it. “I sometimes forget how angelic she looked.”

Noah came to stand next to her and picked the framed picture up off the side table.
“Mattie’s smile could light up a room.” His own smile was sad and Julia wondered, not for the first time, how he stood the grief. She wished there were someone there to comfort and support him but the accident had stolen that as well.

“You weren’t kidding when you said it was time for a change.” Her eyes scanned the nearly empty room searching for any sign that a happy couple had once lived there.
“Yes. Happy Birthday to me,” Noah said ironically, going over to the dining room table where he’d put a bottle of Champagne into an ice bucket. He laid down the photo and reached for the Champagne he’d put on ice earlier. He popped the top and poured them each a glass before raising his in a toast.

“Here’s to birthday promises.”
Julia clinked glasses and took a huge swallow looking deep into Noah’s eyes in order to gauge his seriousness.

“Okay, I’m ready to keep the promise if you are.” She held her glass up again. The bubbles floated from the bottom, freeing themselves from their liquid prison which bound them. Freedom. She took a deep breath.
“Here’s to ending loveless marriages by the time we turn thirty-five. Crazy our insight at age twenty, right?”


Author note:
What . . .   Divorce?
Bet that was a twist. Well, there’s a lot more to the story…. What will Julia do now? Who was the girl in the photo who died? And who exactly is Noah divorcing and why? If you want to read more about the BIRTHDAY PROMISE you’ll have to check back May 19th when I’ll reveal part two of The Promise that these two intriguing characters made.
Deanne Wilsted Bio - Journeys Inspired by Love
With an English teacher for a mom, DEANNE WILSTED grew up reciting conjugations instead of nursery rhymes. Now, forty years later, she's sharing that special skill through her writing and her mothering. Her first book, a contemporary romance called BETTING JESSICA, was published October 2011. Her second Novel, UNTANGLING THE KNOT, was released February 13, 2013 from Soul Mate Publishing. She is currently marketing her third book for publication and writing her fourth, fifth, and sixth while blogging about the crazy things she overhears while writing.
Find more by Deanne at www.deannewilsted.com
Tweet with her @dwilsted
Follow her at https://www.facebook.com/DeanneWilstedAuthor


  1. It was a surprise twist, Deanne. Looking forward to reading more in a couple of weeks.

  2. Loved it, and will be checking back for more!

  3. I wanted to keep reading, darn!! I will be back for the conclusion.

  4. You are sooo talented, Deanne! Can't wait to read the rest!