Susie stood dutifully in the kitchen. Her cutting knife moved swiftly and mechanically within her hand and beneath it the carrot sticks promptly became thin slices. The radio was playing softly in the background but Susie was only pretending to listen. In her mind her thoughts had drifted, stolen away on a ship headed off in search of a new land that wasn’t polluted by the tragedies of her current state.
Six months, Susie thought remorsefully. It’s been half a year since he was taken.
Almost unconsciously, Susie’s eyes slid up to the picture resting in a silver frame on the windowsill in front of her. A tall, strong man glared out at her from the photographic paper. His blonde hair was cut very short, barely visible beneath the brim of his hat, and his face was set with a determinedly serious look, matching his dark green military suit and hat. Golden arrows were threaded onto the shoulder of his jacket, presenting his sergeants rank. Everything about this man emanated an aura of power, respect, and duty. Everything, that was, except his eyes. Brilliantly blue with just a touch of green, like the bright waters of a mineral pool. Hidden within those eyes was the playfulness of a child, the same wonder at nature’s simplest things, and in those eyes Susie could see the charming smile that the photographer had forbidden him.
“My sweet Jason,” Susie sighed. Her hand had ceased moving and the half-finished carrots laid forgotten on the cutting board. Susie stared at the picture, willing it to come to life, to speak words of comfort to her, but Susie knew that she would never again hear Jason’s voice call to her, would never again see that glowing smile.
Six months ago the men had shown up on her front step, their glossy black car parked in the street because she hadn’t yet had a chance to shovel out the two feet of snow that had fallen the day before. Six months ago to the day Susie had heard the terrible news of the ambush on her husband’s vehicle convoy. Six months ago Susie learned how her husband had died trying to save another officer. Three shots to the back as he darted out from behind the car to pull his injured comrade to safety.
“Mrs. Carter,” the somber officer said slowly. “Your husband also wanted us to tell you one last message.” Susie couldn’t bring herself to meet the officer’s eyes and stared instead at the snow falling in the window behind him as she nodded. “Sergeant Carter wished that you knew that he loved you, and also wished to apologize to his son for never finishing his tree house.” Susie almost felt a smile touch her lips at this. Jason had been called to duty shortly after he had started construction on a tree house for their six-year-old son, Levi.
Six months had passed since that day and Susie raised her eyes from Jason’s photograph. Through the window outside, Susie could see the large oak tree where the baseboards and empty framework outlining walls sat waiting for someone to complete them. The dull August sunlight poured through the green leaves, filtering a faint verdant glow upon the boards as though nature was already attempting to claim the forgotten project.
“Mama,” the sweet, high voice of a young boy drew Susie back from speculations and she glanced down to find Levi gazing up at her curiously. Levi, now seven-years-old, resembled his father in almost every aspect. His fine hair was a sun-drenched blonde and almost fell into his eyes, a bright electrifying blue that made you feel he could see directly through you. He was exceptionally tall for a boy his age, but very thin with only a little of his baby fat still lodging desperately in his cheeks although soon to be dislodged by persistent exercising. The only places Susie could see any of herself in her young boy was in his small and slightly pointed ears, and his elegantly long and thin fingers. “Is dinner almost ready, Mama?” Levi asked inquisitively, peering hungrily at the cutting board.
“Yes, I just need to finish slicing these carrots,” Susie said, returning her gaze to the board and feverishly slicing at the vegetables.
“I’ll set the table,” Levi offered instantly and immediately scrambled to the cutlery drawer and gathering up silverware. Susie smiled and felt dry tears well up at the corners of her eyes. She quickly wiped a hand across her eyes. She had not cried when she had received the news and she refused to start now.
After dinner Susie stood at the sink, washing up the dinner plates. Levi had run off after stacking all the dishes next to the sink for her and putting the leftover meatloaf in the refrigerator, saying that he wanted to play soccer with Trigger, his pet German Shepherd, for a few hours before dark.
Susie was scrubbing at a plate when she heard Trigger’s barking suddenly stop. Worried, Susie set down the plate and rushed to the window. Levi was no longer playing with Trigger. Instead Trigger stood alone by the soccer ball, looking dejectedly up at the tree house. Susie felt her gaze pulled upward. Levi was standing alone in the middle of the floorboards, staring blankly into space. The sun was sliding low in the sky behind him and it cast an angelic glow around him, turning his blonde hair gold.
Susie’s mother’s intuition was screaming at her that there was something out of sorts about this scene but she could see nothing wrong so she returned to her cleaning, glancing occasionally out of the window to check that Levi was still safe. After a while Levi began waving his hands animatedly as though speaking to someone and Susie could hear his laughter echoing across the back lawn. Then finally as the last rays of sunlight vanished over the horizon Levi suddenly stopped speaking and sat in the middle of the tree house floorboards, staring vacantly at the crimson vista. Susie had finished the dishes over an hour before and had spent the time watching her son’s peculiar behavior through the window. When he sat down Susie finally ventured outside.
“Levi!” she called up to him. Levi crawled over and looked over the edge of the tree house down to her.
“Oh, hi, Mama,” Levi said sweetly and flashed his mischievous smile at her.
“What are you doing up there?” Susie asked, her hands on her hips.
“You should see the view!” Levi exclaimed excitedly. “You can see all the way to the grocer’s store up here.”
“Come on down here. It’s dark now and you need to get ready for bed,” Susie said. “Besides I’m not so sure that tree house is safe,” Susie grumbled to herself, knowing that saying so to Levi would only make him protest. But still Susie found it odd that Levi had suddenly climbed up there when for six months he had refused to even go near the tree that harbored it.
Levi scrambled down the ladder nailed to the tree trunk and jumped the last few steps so he landed cat-like at his mother’s feet. “Okay, Mama,” Levi smiled again. “Race you to the house?”
“You bet,” Susie grinned and took off running, Levi easily keeping pace with her and Trigger jumping at both of their heels. Levi glanced sideways at her, winked, and then put on an extra push of speed so he reach the door several long seconds ahead of her.
“When did you get so fast?” Susie asked, pushing back his blonde hair as he laughed at her panting breath.
“I’ve always been fast,” Levi answered, a playful sparkle in his eyes, “you’re just getting slower.”
“Oh, slow am I?” Susie asked. Levi mock-yelped and ran through the door and didn’t stop till he was in his bedroom. By the time Susie had walked the length of the house Levi was in his pajamas and nestled under the covers, waiting expectantly.
“Mama,” Levi said tentatively as Susie pulled the covers up around his shoulders.
“I was just thinking – ” Levi stopped sheepishly. “I was thinking, I really want to finish the tree house.” Susie looked up at him in surprise. “I mean I already know how to build everything, I just sort of need the stuff to build it with.”
“You know how to build it already?” Susie asked curiously.
“Yeah, he showed me how,” Levi said enthusiastically. When Susie cocked an eyebrow he answered quietly,
“Daddy taught me how.” Susie felt the corners of her eyes begin to burn again but she blinked a few times and the feeling passed.
“All right,” Susie said. “As long as you promise me that you’ll be careful and if you need help you’ll ask for it and not try to do everything by yourself.”
“I promise,” Levi said quickly, drawing an X across his chest with his fingertip.
“Good. But now it is time to go to sleep,” Susie said, patting the covers. “Good-night.” Susie bent and gently kissed Levi’s forehead.
“Good-night, Mama,” Levi replied, snuggling deeper into his blankets. As Susie made to close the door behind her, Levi called out quietly, “Mama.” Susie stopped and looked back at him. “Thank you. For letting me do this.” Susie smiled and closed the door, knowing that her son had truly meant it.
Over the next few days Levi worked feverishly at the tree house. All of the floorboards that had started to rot were replaced and walls slowly began to take shape. The peculiar thing was that Levi rarely went out to work until after dinner, and then only worked until sundown. Shortly after sunset he would come back in, tired but happy, and tell his mother about all the work he had gotten done. Susie would often ask him how he knew how to do everything, to which Levi would always reply, “Daddy showed me.” And whenever he was asked about his strange work schedule, Levi smiled and said, “That’s when I feel him the most,” and refuse to explain further.
One evening, no more than an hour after Levi had gone out to work, Susie wandered out into the yard and heard her son’s voice coming down from the treetop. Wondering whom on earth Levi could be talking to, Susie mounted the ladder and began to climb. A few feet from the top Susie stopped, having caught some of what her son had said.
“So this nail goes in like this, right?” Levi asked. There was no response but Levi giggled and the rhythmic thumping of a hammer could be heard. Just as Susie took another step the hammering stopped and Levi spoke again.
“I haven’t told Mama about you yet,” Levi said slowly, almost as if he expected to get in trouble. There was a pause of silence. “I know I should, but I’m afraid she won’t believe me. Besides she’s been really sad lately.” Levi waited thoughtfully as if someone were speaking to him. “But she might send me back to that doctor, the one that helps crazy people get better. It never helped me, it just made me feel worse. I don’t want to have to go back but she’ll send me there, I know it.” There was a loud thud as if Levi had set down the hammer. “Fine,” he said grumpily. “But you have to promise that she won’t send me back. I won’t do it unless you promise.”
Susie’s hands and toes were starting to ache from hanging on the wooden ladder for so long so she decided it was time that she made an entrance. Besides she was afraid of what she was hearing and wanted to know whom Levi was hiding up in this tree house. Her mind filled with delusions of homeless beggars and run-away bandits up there with her son, Susie knocked on the wooden floor of the tree house before poking her head up through the hole.
“Levi, who’s up there with you?” Susie asked curiously, hoisting herself through the hole and onto the tree house floor. To her great confusion Susie saw no one except for Levi, who was sitting on the floor next to a hammer and a box of nails, his long arms wrapped around his knees.
“Hi, Mama,” Levi smiled.
“Who were you talking to?” Susie asked, looking around the large, square room once more. Absolutely no one. “I heard voices.”
“Nobody,” Levi said, a little too quickly. Then he scowled and looked over his shoulder briefly before returning his gaze to his mother. His large blue eyes were pleading. “Will you promise not to take me to the crazy doctor if I tell you?”
“Why would I take you to the doctor?” Susie asked. After Jason had died the school district had insisted that Levi meet with a counselor to help him get over it. Levi had hated every minute of it, claiming that the sessions only made him feel worse, until finally Susie took him out and let him deal with his depression in his own ways.
“I just don’t want to go back. And I’m afraid you’ll think I’m crazy and need to see a doctor if I tell you,” Levi persisted. Susie swallowed nervously. She thought she knew what this meant, whom Levi was talking to, but she prayed that this would not be the answer he gave her.
“Okay, I promise,” Susie said despairingly.
Levi took several deep breaths and then said, without ever looking at his mother, “Daddy. I’ve been talking to Daddy.” Susie’s worst fears had been confirmed. Levi glanced up at his mom and seeing the look on her face quickly said, “I told him, you don’t believe me, do you?”
“Oh, Levi.” Susie sighed and knelt on the ground in front of her son, taking his hands in her own. “Levi, you can’t be talking to your father. Daddy’s gone, honey, you know that.”
“Yeah, I thought so too,” Levi argued, pulling out of her grasp and climbing to his feet. “Then one day I was in the yard and I thought I could hear him calling me. I climbed up into the tree house and there he was. He told me he wasn’t about to leave until he had kept his promise to help me finish the tree house. That’s when I asked you if you’d buy me the stuff so we could finish it.”
Levi looked genuinely agitated and Susie couldn’t help but watch with wide-eyes. Levi kept running his fingers through his hair as he explained, pacing the length of the tree house in a nervous way. Finally he stopped and glanced up at a space slightly to his right. His brow furrowed as he seemed to be listening intently and then he glanced at his mother curiously.
“You still don’t believe me, do you?” Levi asked softly, his large blue eyes boring into her and filled with pleading.
“You have to believe me. He’s right here next to me. He’s not here all the time, only in the evening and he goes away as soon as the sun sets. But he is here.”
“Levi, this is impossible,” Susie said reasonably. “Listen to yourself, honey.”
“He’s here,” Levi protested, actually stamping his foot in frustration. He turned around and said to the air, “Tell her you’re here, Dad. Make her believe me.”
“Levi,” Susie said forcefully. She was getting tired of this and decided to put an end to this nonsense.
“He says that he can’t talk to you unless you let him,” Levi told her, his gaze resolute. “He says you are blocking him out. Pushing away his memory. Until you let him in you can’t see him.”
“I am not blocking out your father,” Susie snapped, stung by her son’s words and briefly forgetting the situation. “I have grieved and I learned to let go.”
“No, you didn’t,” Levi said, glancing over his shoulder with questioning eyes. “He says that if you had moved on then he would not still be here. He says that you never let yourself grieve, you simply pushed it all away.”
Susie felt tears burn her eyes and, for the very first time since she had received the news, she didn’t fight them. Levi’s words had struck something at her core and the truth left her breathless. She hadn’t grieved over her loss, she had simply forced herself to move on. Susie closed her eyes and let her remorse wash over her.
The quiet voice seemed to be whispering to her from a great distance, as though her memories were given voice. A light pressure beneath her chin caused her head to lift and Susie feebly opened her eyes. Directly in front of her knelt a blonde man clothed in faded blue jeans and a white tee shirt. Bright blue eyes gazed into her with all the tenderness of the world. Susie felt her breath stop in her chest.
“Jason?” she managed to choke out. A playful smile crept across the face of the man before her.
“Glad to see you haven’t forgotten me,” he said softly.
“How is this happening?” Susie asked in disbelief.
“My soul couldn’t rest until my business had been finished,” Jason explained gently. “I made promises and I wasn’t about to see them go unfinished.”
“The tree house,” Susie said with a faint smile, looking around the wooden room.
“Yeah,” Jason agreed, following her gaze. “He’s done a really good job.” Jason glanced over his shoulder at Levi who beamed proudly.
“See, mommy, I told you he was here,” Levi said, coming to sit cross-legged beside his mother. “You just have to believe.”
“And I will always be here as long as you believe in me,” Jason added, returning his gaze to his wife. “Even after my business is finished my spirit will remain with you, provided you let me this time.” A mischievous grin touched his cheeks and he set his hand on top of Susie’s.
“I’m so sorry I shut you out, Jason,” Susie apologized, tears filling her eyes once more. “I was trying to be strong for Levi. I never meant to push you away, I just didn’t know how else to cope.”
“I know,” Jason said, touching his wife’s cheek tenderly. “I’ve been watching over you all this time and I always will be there. That’s my other unfinished business. The day that I left for service I promised you that one day I would return to you and stay by your side for the rest of your life. Do you remember?” Susie nodded as the faint memory returned to her. “I am a man of my honor and my soul will not rest until my earthly promises are fulfilled.”
“But Jason, you promised that you would stay with me for the rest of my life,” Susie gasped in realization. “That means – ”
“It means that when your time comes to leave this earth I’ll be there to escort you to the gates of Heaven,” Jason said solemnly. “That’s a promise I could never forget.”
Suddenly Jason stood, casting a glance out of the window frame. “It is almost time for me to go,” he said slowly.
“Must you go so soon?” Susie asked tearfully, rising to her feet as well.
Jason smiled sweetly. “My image only remains until the sun sets.”
“But he always come back,” Levi informed his mother. “Don’t you, Dad?”
“Always,” Jason agreed with a nod. “So we’ll get some more work done tomorrow night, alright sport?”
“Great,” Levi said with a smile. “See ya tomorrow.”
“See ya, sport,” Jason laughed, tousling his son’s light hair. Then he lifted his gaze to Susie. “You’ll come back up tomorrow, won’t you?”
“If you’ll be here,” Susie said, trying to keep the sobs from her voice. Jason smiled broadly and began to turn away. His figure was beginning to thin and the wall behind him became visible through him. “Jason,” Susie called out and Jason stopped. “I love you.”
With a gentle smile on his face Jason quickly strode back to her. He wrapped her in his arms and Susie drank in the feeling of his comforting presence.
“I love you too,” Jason answered, “and I always will.” He pulled away and gently placed his lips on her forehead as the last rays of the sun disappeared beyond the horizon.
In the silence that followed Susie heard a quiet whisper in her ear.
“That’s a promise…”