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The Promised World

First Chapter

While millions of people watched her brother die, Lila sat in
her quiet office at the university, working on a paper about Herman
Melville’s later years. Someone else might have found it
ironic that, on that very afternoon, she’d been thinking
about Melville’s son, who shot himself. Lila herself
didn’t make the connection until much later, and by then, she
was so lost she could only see it as an obvious sign that she
should have known, that she’d failed Billy when he needed her

Though Billy didn’t shoot himself, his death was
considered a suicide. Patrick, Lila’s husband, had to explain
it to her twice before she realized what he was saying. Her mind
was working so slowly, but she finally understood that
“suicide by police” happened enough that it had its own
label. Billy had holed up inside a Center City Philadelphia hotel
with a rifle, unloaded but aimed at the elementary school, so a
SWAT team would have to do what he couldn’t or wouldn’t
do to himself. As far as Lila knew, Billy had never owned a gun,
but she hadn’t talked to her twin much in the last two years,
since he’d moved with his family to Central Pennsylvania.
Still, everyone knew Lila was a twin, because she talked about her
brother constantly. And many of those people were probably watching
as Lila’s brother closed down an entire city block and sent
parents and teachers and children into a terrified panic. As one of
the fathers told the reporters, after the threat had been
“nullified”: “Of course parents are afraid of
violence these days. Seems like every week, there’s another
nut job with an axe to grind.”

Her beautiful, sensitive brother, Billy, the most intelligent
person she’d ever known, who taught her to climb trees and
read her stories when she couldn’t sleep and told her flowers
were the only proof we needed that God loved us --- reduced to a
nut job. She wanted to scream at this father, this stranger, but
the only sound she could make was a muffled cry.

Patrick hadn’t wanted Lila to watch the eleven
o’clock news, but she had insisted. They both knew this would
still be the top story, though the city undoubtedly had murders and
rapes and robberies to report that day. The elementary school was
an upscale, private place, where lawyers and executives and
professors like Lila dropped their children off on the way to work.
Except Lila didn’t have any children because, though she and
Patrick were in their mid-thirties now and had been married for
more than a decade, she kept begging him to wait just a little
longer to start their family. What she was waiting for, Lila could
never explain. She honestly didn’t know.

Her brother certainly hadn’t waited. When Billy showed up
at her college graduation, Lila hadn’t seen him in almost a
year and she was giddy with the thrill of reunion. He said he was
there to give her a present and handed her a large brown box, with
nothing on it except a row of “fragile” stickers. He
told her to open it later, in her room. She thought it might be
pot, since Billy always had pot, no matter how poor he was. They
were both poor then (because they’d refused to take any of
their stepfather’s money), but Lila had gotten a full
scholarship to a prestigious school while Billy had embarked on his
adventure to see America, funded by a string of jobs he hated.

She took the box to the room that she was being kicked out of
the next day. The dorms were already closed --- classes had ended
weeks ago --- but Lila had gotten special permission to remain
until her summer camp teaching job began. Every year it was like
that: piecing together a place to stay by begging favors from
people who liked Lila and sympathized with her circumstances. Her
parents were dead (Billy had forged the death certificates way
back, when Lila first started applying for college) and her only
relative, a brother, was traveling full-time for his company.
“That’s true, too,” Billy had said.
“I’m going to be traveling for my own company --- and
to avoid the company of the undead.”

Lila opened the box. On top, she found a baggie with three
perfectly rolled joints and a note that said, “Do this in
memory of me.” Below that, a copy of Highlights for Children
magazine, which Billy had probably ripped off from a doctor’s
office. On page 12, at the top of the cartoon, he’d written
“Billy = Gallant, Lila = Goofus.” It was an old joke
between them: Lila, the rule follower, had always been Gallant, and
Billy, the rebel, Goofus. But in this particular comic strip,
Gallant had brought a present to someone and Goofus was
empty-handed. Touché, bro, Lila thought, and smiled.

Finally, underneath an insane number of foam peanuts was a large
shoebox, which he’d made into a diorama. It was so intricate,
worthy of any grade school prize, except Lila and Billy had never
made dioramas in grade school, not that she could remember any-way.
Her memories of her childhood were so fragmented that she sometimes
felt those years had disappeared from her mind even as she lived
them. Of course, she could always ask Billy what really happened.
He remembered everything.

Inside the shoebox, there were two houses made of broken
popsicle sticks in front of a multi-colored landscape, complete
with purple clouds and a blue sky and a pink and yellow sun. The
houses had tiny toothpick mailboxes to identify them: the one on
the left was Lila’s, the one on the right, Billy’s. In
Lila’s house, a clay man and woman stood watch over a clay
baby inside a lumpy clay crib. In Billy’s house, a clay man
and woman were sitting on the floor, smoking an obscenely large
joint, but a clay baby was asleep in another room, on a mattress.
Billy’s house was dirtier, with straw floors and very little
furniture, but it was still a house and, most important, it was
still next door to Lila’s. They’d always planned on
living next to each other when they were grown. Of course whoever
Billy married would love Lila and whoever Lila married would love
Billy. How could it be any other way?

Lila knew something was wrong when she saw the note Billy had
attached to the bottom of the diorama: “Don’t worry, I
haven’t lost the plot. This won’t change
anything.” She knew what the first sentence meant, since
Billy had been saying this for years, but the second one was too
cryptic to understand. Weirder still was how short the note was.
Billy had been writing long letters from the time he could hold a
crayon. He was a born writer. He’d already written dozens of
stories when they were kids and he was planning to start his novel
on the road trip. Lila liked to imagine him writing in seedy hotels
while she learned how to interpret novels in her English

She found out what he was telling her only a few days later,
when he called to invite her to his wedding. He’d gotten a
woman pregnant. Her name was Ashley and she was twenty-nine ---
eight years older than Lila and Billy. She was a waitress in a bar
in Los Lunas, New Mexico. She didn’t write novels or read
them, but she claimed to think it was “cool” that Billy
did. “He’s got himself a real imagination, that
boy,” Ashley said, and laughed. She and Lila were sitting on
barstools, waiting to drive to the justice of the peace with Billy
and one of Ashley’s friends. Lila tried not to hate her for
that laugh, but from that point on, she couldn’t help
thinking of her as Trashley, though she never shared that fact with
anyone, not even Patrick.

Fifteen years later, she’d forgotten about the diorama ---
until that night, watching Billy die on television. Then it came
back to her and she felt tears spring to her eyes because she
didn’t even know where it was. She told Patrick that she was
going to the storage space in the basement of their building to
find Billy’s diorama first thing tomorrow. He gripped her
hand more tightly. No doubt he thought she was in shock. Maybe she

The news reporter had started by announcing that the gunman,
William “Billy” Cole, was in the middle of being
divorced from his wife, Ashley. Patrick hadn’t shared this
fact with her: maybe because he didn’t know it, as he’d
only heard about Billy’s death on the radio driving home, or
maybe because he’d intuited it would upset her more. It
stunned Lila, but it was the end of the broadcast that made her
feel like her throat was closing up and it was becoming difficult
to breathe. “Cole was thought to be depressed from the
divorce and from his recent loss of visitation with his children
after his wife’s allegation that he’d abused their
middle child, an eight-year-old boy, whose name is being withheld.
Earlier in the week, the district attorney had decided to bring
charges against Cole for several counts of child endangerment. A
warrant for his arrest had been expected today.”

While Lila watched, Patrick held her tight trying to quiet her
shaking, but when she shouted an obscenity at a close-up of
Trashley, he looked very surprised, and Lila heard herself barking
out an hysterical laugh. It was true she never cursed and certainly
never shouted. The walls of their apartment were so thin they could
hear the old lady next door coughing. Normally Lila worried about
this, but now she longed to hear screaming or sirens or even the
room exploding: something, anything, to match the turmoil inside
her mind.  She repeated the obscenity she’d used, louder
than before, adding, “And I don’t care who hears

She stormed into their bedroom, slammed the door, and collapsed
to her knees. The sound that came from her was less a cry than a
wail, too airless for anyone to recognize the sentences she kept
moaning over and over, “It isn’t real, Lila. It
can’t be real unless you decide that it is.”

How many times had Billy said this to her? Fifty? A hundred? How
could she have forgotten?

She desperately wanted to believe this, but she couldn’t
remember ever making any decisions about what was real and what
wasn’t. Billy was the one who’d told her the nightmares
weren’t real, the one who knew what had really happened in
their past. It was Billy, too, who’d convinced her that their
future would be beautiful with second chances, and then described
that future so vividly it became more real to Lila than her sorrow
and lost innocence. All she’d ever had to do was trust her
brother, but that was the easiest thing in the world. It
didn’t require imagination. It didn’t even require
faith. Love was the only necessity --- her love for Billy, which
had always been the truest thing in her life.

She used to think that without her brother she would simply
cease to exist. But now, as she heard her lungs gasping for air and
felt the ache of her knees against the hardwood floor, she knew her
body was stubborn; it would insist on remaining alive, even if her
life no longer made sense to her. Even if she couldn’t
comprehend the world in which she found herself. It was frankly
impossible, and yet this was her reality now: a world without

Excerpted from THE PROMISED WORLD © Copyright 2011 by Lisa
Tucker. Reprinted with permission by Washington Square Press. All
rights reserved.

The Promised World
by by Lisa Tucker

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Washington Square Press
  • ISBN-10: 1416575391
  • ISBN-13: 9781416575399