PROMISE NOT TO TELL
Copyright 2002 - Linda L. Rigsbee
    "I hate him!" Jamie said, slamming her books down on the porch swing. A strand of straight brown hair hid one eye, but the other one was seeping tears. "All he ever does is yell at me. He hates me. I don't know why he even married mom. They're always fighting."
    Selena hugged her knees, her bare toes seeking refuge in the grooves on the old porch swing. "Why don't you talk to the councilor at school?"
    Jamie dropped to the swing beside Selena, glaring at a cow grazing in the pasture across the road as if it were to blame for all her troubles. "School will be out in three days. Then he'll have all summer to yell at me. I wish he'd get a job. I'm not going to spend all summer with him while mom is working."
    "You can stay here during the day," Selena said. "Mom doesn't mind, and Dad is gone all day."
    "The bus wasn't even out of sight before he started in on me today," Jamie went on as if she hadn't heard her friend. "I was so embarrassed. I told him I needed to study for a test tomorrow. He was still yelling at me when I walked out of the yard."
    Selena sighed. The mile and a half walk between their homes hadn't cooled Jamie down any. "He didn't used to be this way, did he? I mean, he was always nice to me."
    Jamie jammed her elbows into her knees and dropped her chin into her hands. Her lower lip pushed out. "I never liked him, but it's different since he lost his job." She shifted her gaze to Selena and that one eye looked like a muddy pond overflowing with rainwater. "It's not my fault the plant shut down."
    Selena dropped her feet to the cool concrete porch. She lifted the hair off the back of her neck and held it up with both hands. "Dad says things are slow where he works, too."
    Jamie kicked at a big black ant with the toe of her sneakers. "At least your mom is at home so you have someone to talk to. Even my mom don't pay me much mind anymore. She's always telling me to be quiet so I don't upset my dad." She made a face. "He's not my dad! My Dad is in California. He never yelled at me."
    "Why don't you call him and see if you can stay with him for the summer?"
    Jamie frowned. "I don't have his telephone number, and if I did, mom would go ballistic if she saw it on the phone bill. She has custody of me." She slammed a hand on her knee.     "Custody! I'm thirteen years old, for crying out loud."
    "Maybe if you talked to someone…."
    "Talk?" Jamie interrupted, her voice rising. "Mom says there is nothing we can do. The law says that I have to stay with Mom. What do they know? Just because Dad drank too much, they said he was an unfit father"
    "Maybe your step-father will get a job soon and things will get better."
    Jamie leaned back in the swing and expelled her despair in a long sigh. "Maybe pigs will fly. I'm not waiting until he starts hitting me. I'm going to get away.
    Selena dropped her hair and stared at her friend. "How?"
    Jamie glanced around to make sure no one was close enough to hear. "Promise not to tell?"
    Selena nodded, leaning toward her friend in anticipation.
    Jamie leaned closer, her voice barely audible. "I'm going to run away."
    Selena gasped. "Where?"
    "I'll go see my Dad. I have his address."
    "How will get there? California is a long way from Arkansas."
    "I've thought about that." Jamie was silent a moment. "I'll walk to the main highway and hitch-hike. Or maybe I'll get in an empty train car like the Nattie did in that show."
    "That was way back in the depression days," Selena said. "And hitch-hiking is dangerous.     Haven't you been listening to the news?"
Jamie shrugged. "Sure, but I'd be careful. I wouldn't take a ride with just anybody. They'd have to look nice."
    Selena leaned forward. "Look nice? How can you tell if a person is nice by the way they look? I won't let you go. You could get killed."
    Jamie jumped off the swing. "You can't stop me." She tucked the hair behind her ear, exposing the second eye, and both focused on Selena. "Remember, you promised not to tell. If you say anything to anyone about this, I'll never forgive you. If my step father found out I was thinking about this, he'd beat me black and blue."
    Selena hugged her knees again and rested her chin on them, eyeing her friend with doubt.     "I'm sure he wouldn't beat you."
    "You don't know how he is anymore. I never know what he's going to do next. Even Mom doesn't know what to do about him. I heard her tell him so last night."
    "Can't you talk to her about it? If she knew how desperate you were…."
    "Mom is too busy to talk to me anymore. Anyway, it would just make her mad."
    "But she'd be worried about you," Selena persisted.
    "I'll leave her a note. Just remember - you promised."

    Those words stuck in Selena's mind long after Jamie left. A promise was sacred. What was it Grandpa used to say? A promise broken is a betrayal spoken. But she hadn't actually promised. All she had done was nod her head. Still, Jamie had trusted her. Maybe her stepfather would beat her. Who could be sure of such things? But hitchhiking? She had to stop Jamie somehow.
    Mom kept watching her at supper. Finally she spoke. "You're quiet tonight. Is something troubling you?"
    Selena shook her head. As Mom was so fond of saying, everything that crossed her mind didn't have to cross her lips as well. But this was one time she wasn't sure keeping it in her mind was the right thing to do. Was it betrayal to break a promise if a person's life was in danger? Maybe Jamie would think about it and realize that she was better off being yelled at than what could happen if someone picked her up on the road. Maybe Jamie was only speaking out of anger. She had three more days to think about it.

    The three days passed quickly, but with every day Jamie was more resolved - even anxiously looking forward to seeing her father again. Selena tried everything she could think of - even suggesting that Jamie's father might not be happy to see her. Finally the day came when Jamie stopped by her house on the way to the highway. She had extra clothes and some food in her backpack.
    "Think about it," Selena begged. "Your mother will be worried sick about you. I'd feel absolutely terrible if I let something happen to you."
    Jamie eyed her suspiciously. "You promised not to tell."
    Selena felt a tear slide down her cheek. "But what if you get hurt?"
    Jamie rolled her eyes. "What if...maybe.... Stop worrying. I know what I'm doing. People travel all over the place this way. What are the odds that someone bad will pick me up?     They've got to be one in a million. I'll be careful." She hugged Selena. "Thank you for not telling. You're the only one I could trust."
    Selena watched her friend walk away, overwhelmed by the need to tell someone and yet the desire to be a trustworthy friend. She watched in tense silence as the figure grew smaller and finally disappeared around the bend in the dirt road. Tears blurred her vision and a lump grew in her throat. What if she never saw Jamie again?
    She turned and ran to the house. "Mama!"
    Mom hurried to the door. "What happened, Selena?"
    "Mom," Selena sobbed. "Jamie is running away. She made me promise not to tell, but I can't let her hitch-hike to California."
    Mom looked confused. "California?"
    Selena spilled the entire story through sobs. "I promised not to tell, and now she'll hate me," she concluded.
    Mom patted her on the shoulder. "You did the right thing. Sometimes you have to make difficult choices and I'm proud of you. I'll call Jamie's mother and…."
    "No," Selena pleaded. "Her mother will be angry and her father will yell at her."
    Mom nodded. "Yes, I suppose that could happen. But is that as bad as what could happen to her on the road?"

    Mom called Jamie's mother at work, but it was her stepfather who retrieved her from the highway. That evening when Dad got home, they all went over to Jamie's house. Mom and     Dad talked a long time to her parents, but Jamie only had five bitter words to say to Selena.
    "You promised not to tell."
    Selena was dry-eyed and silent all the way home. Finally, when she was alone with Mom, she broke down.
    "She hates me now," she said. "I lost my best friend because I broke a promise."
    Mom sighed. "You saved a friend."
    "Maybe," Selena said. "Maybe she would have found her father and he would have been happy she came. How do I know I did the right thing?"
    Mom pulled the covers around her neck as if she were a little kid and kissed her on the forehead. "Some day you will know...and so will she."

    Weeks passed, but Jamie never came to see her. Sometimes their car would drive by, but Jamie didn't look at her - not even when she was standing beside the road. Mom was right. She would simply have to learn to live with it. It couldn't be undone.

    A month passed and Selena sat with her parents watching the news. A lady was talking about a kidnapping in their own hometown. Some little girl was walking beside the road one minute, and then gone the next. No one knew what had happened, and no one had seen her since.
    Selena looked up to find her mother watching her with that "I told you so" look on her face. It could have been Jamie. Their friendship had been destroyed, but at least Jamie was alive.
Someone knocked on the door and Mom went to answer it. A few minutes later, Mom returned. "It's for you, Selena."
    Selena frowned. "Me?" She wasn't expecting company. She slid off the couch and walked to the front door. No one was there. She pushed open the screen door and saw Jamie sitting on the porch swing.
    Selena stepped through the door and let it squeak shut. Jamie stared at the ground as Selena walked over and sat on the swing beside her. For a long time they sat in silence. Finally Selena spoke.
    "I'm sorry I broke my promise."
    "I'm not," Jamie said in a voice so soft it was almost a whisper. Finally Jamie looked up at her. "My step-dad hasn't yelled at me once since I tried to run away. Mom called Dad and he said I could come out and spend a few weeks with him."
    "I'm glad," Selena said with a smile. "That little girl...it could have been you."
    Jamie frowned. "What little girl?"
    "Didn't you hear about it on the news?" Selena asked. "A little girl was kidnapped on the highway where you were going to hitch-hike. They haven't found her yet."
    Jamie stared at her in horror. "Kidnapped?"
    They were both silent for a long time. Finally Jamie turned to Selena.
    "You know," Jamie said with a sigh. "There are some promises you have to break."
    Selena smiled with relief. "There are some things you should never promise not to tell."

​****
​This story can be purchased in the collection of short youth stories "YOUTH YARNS."
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