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T.D. Johnston is an award-winning author who splits his time between Jacksonville, Florida and Beaufort, South Carolina. His 2017 short-story collection, “Friday Afternoon and Other Stories”, won the International Book Award for Best Short Fiction. His stories have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, and his tale titled “Weeding for Eisenhower” was named a Best of 2019 Original. His first two novels, “Reciprocity” and “The Daffodil Society”, are due out in late 2020 and 2021. 
The following story, a exclusive, is also the first chapter of T.D. Johnston’s third novel-in-progress, titled “The Glad Promise.”

She never looked at the camera. That much he remembered.

On the morning of his fortieth birthday, Crafton Kelly kept the promise he’d made twenty years ago. If Sandy wasn’t married when she and Crafton were both forty, he would go to her. She had turned her page of the calendar two months ago. Now Crafton had arrived as well. She would be glad.

As he reviewed the photos on her Facebook page, Crafton marveled again at how young she still looked. Her full, kissable mouth remained both, so much so that he wanted to kiss the screen of his iPhone. He saw no evidence of crow’s feet. The laugh lines forming rounded vees on her cheeks were beckoning assets. But the eyes. The eyes. They still never looked at the camera. On some photos, like the ones with old friends from college, all of them except Sandy grinning at the viewer while hamming it up at their fifteenth reunion three years ago, she matched their laughter. But her eyes gazed off into the distance, taking her somewhere else.

The eyes. The eyes were looking for him. Waiting for him. Longing for Crafton Kelly to turn forty and keep his promise.

Crafton was nothing if not a man of his word. She would be glad.

Facebook said she lived in Chattanooga. Sandra Triplett McKay. Worked at Wellington Ford, it said. Crafton wondered again why Facebook always said ‘worked’ for present-tense employment, but didn’t dwell on the question. He needed to finish packing. The drive from Atlanta to Chattanooga would take two hours. Rush hour heading north on 75 on a Friday afternoon always added thirty minutes nowadays, especially when leaving from Marietta.

Her ruminations on loss last year, posted to Facebook, had been painful for Crafton to read. Maybe she just wanted to honor the dead by pretending to grieve. Don McKay had been a jackass throughout college. Leopards don’t change their spots. Crafton had said this to himself often over the past eighteen years. Well, seventeen actually. That’s how long it took for Sandy to be single again. Seventeen years of living with a jackass. No wonder she never looked at the camera.

She’d been looking for him.

As he finished packing his black leather duffel bag, Crafton again admired her patience. Like Crafton, she’d known that forty would one day arrive in all its exuberant joy. Don McKay’s accident had merely released more sunshine through the approaching doorway to the resumption of happiness. And there were no children on her Facebook page. Bright sunshine.

Crafton slowly and silently zipped up the duffel bag, advanced from the master bedroom to the kitchen, and withdrew a cold bottle of water from the refrigerator’s interior door. He needed to stay hydrated in case he and Sandy enjoyed a long afternoon in her bed. He almost unscrewed the bottle top, but remembered patience. He would sip at it as he maneuvered the Jag up 75. By the time he approached the Tennessee border, he’d be ready for a drive-thru lunch and a Diet Coke. Or a Diet Mountain Dew if he decided to hit the Taco Bell he found the last time he’d driven up to see where Sandy and Don lived.

He placed the stick-pad note for Elizabeth on the mantle in the living room, but remembered that at five-four his wife could easily miss it. He couldn’t have that. So he picked up the note and took it back to the kitchen. If he stuck it on the refrigerator door up high enough and folded the bottom half up so the kids couldn’t read it, Elizabeth couldn’t miss it, and the kids didn’t need to know.

As he locked the front door and walked out the brick walkway and across the driveway pavers to the metallic-blue Jaguar sedan that would again take him to Chattanooga, Crafton wondered how she was waiting for him. Was she in the shower, lathering herself in scented body gel, counting the minutes to his ‘surprise’ arrival on his long-awaited fortieth birthday? Or was she pulling together the ingredients for a ‘surprise’ brunch on the veranda which opened off those two sets of sliding doors overlooking Lookout Mountain? Or was she still asleep, having finally drifted off at four a.m. after hours of eager reminiscence of the months together before Don McKay—

He needed to concentrate. He opened the driver door, descended into the tan leather driver’s seat, carefully placed the duffel bag in the passenger seat, put the water bottle in the cupholder, and gently pulled the door shut. Elizabeth and the kids could wake up at any minute. No need to help with that now. He started the engine and seconds later he was on his way down the curved drive to Felton Parkway, entering the street while plugging Sandy’s address into the GPS. Not that he needed the directions, but it was always nice to have an ETA.

Elizabeth and the kids would miss him, of course. He had even brushed little Billy’s teeth last night, giving his son one last close moment with his dad. Billy would cherish it later. There was comfort in that knowledge. A minute later the Jaguar passed the BP at the right corner before the entrance ramp to 75 North. On the ramp he pressed the gas.

He hadn’t brushed Emily’s teeth because she was six now and very independent. Crafton was sad about that. But at the same time, it was good to know she didn’t need her dad. He reached eighty on the speedometer before finishing his merge. He set the cruise control for eighty-one and reached for the water bottle, using his left thigh to control the wheel while twisting the too-full container carefully, gently, with both hands to avoid spilling water on his lap. It might not dry before his arrival at Sandy’s, and that would absolutely not do.

Twenty minutes later, as he passed Lake Allatoona, he barely remembered to take the north exit for a quick stop at the lake. At the end of the exit ramp he turned left and drove the three hundred yards to the parking lot for the public boat ramp. There was only one other vehicle, a red Dodge Ram pickup. It was empty. Someone was out enjoying their boat.

Crafton stepped out of the Jaguar, cell phone in hand, and walked toward the dock that ran parallel to the boat ramp. As he strolled, he turned off his phone. He stepped onto the dock, advanced to its end, and lobbed the phone underhanded like a softball, as far out over the water as he could. It landed flat with a smack, and then disappeared into the murky depths of the clay-misted water.

Returning to the Jag, Crafton knew he would miss being able to look at Sandy’s pictures. Billy’s and Emily’s too. But that was what new phones were for. Goodbye, T-Mobile. Hello, Verizon. Goodbye, Facebook. After all, he would have Sandy’s password anyway, and wouldn’t need to look at her pictures anymore. No need for a billboard saying ‘Crafton Kelly Is Here.’ He wasn’t there. He was forty now. He had a promise to keep. And new pictures to take.