It’s the one thing Promise Grene can’t bring herself to say. I promise. How could she after she broke her promise to the red-haired boy? It wasn’t her fault, but every Christmas Eve she’s reminded. Another year older. Another Christmas when she hasn’t kept her promise.
When her cousin kidnaps her in France and brings her home to attend her brother’s wedding, Promise takes a chance. If she can find the red-haired boy, maybe she can keep that Christmas promise?
Christmas Eve, 2001
Until she turned seven, on Christmas Eve 2001, Promise Grene loved her name.
It was easy to spell and easy to remember. It was unusual but not peculiar. It could be declaimed, in the style of a Roman emperor or an Asimovian robot. I, Promise! with an appropriate right-hand gesture.
She never did that anymore.
On Christmas Eve, on her seventh birthday, she made a promise to a red-haired boy. She didn’t keep it.
That wasn’t her fault, but she would never make another promise until she kept that one.
Promises were important. That was why her parents had given her that name. Her mother LeeLee explained it as she enveloped her in a hug and the scent of frangipani. “It’s a promise to love you for ever and ever and ever.” Each ever was accompanied by a kiss on the head from her mum, her dad and her big brother. Of course it was. They were pixies, and with pixies love and forever came in the same breath. So did the scents of pleasant things. LeeLee smelled of frangipani. Prom’s personal scent was the gentler one of chamomile.
So, Promise loved her name. It even came with a sweet little short form. Prom.
“A prom is a kind of dance, or sometimes a concert,” her brother told her. His name was Peckerdale Peter Grene, but most people called him Peck. Prom thought it suited him. He could be short and sharp, and he was always on the move.
Everything was happy in Promise’s garden until that seventh birthday, on that Christmas Eve of 2001, when she made the promise to the red-haired boy and didn’t keep it.
It started with the mystery Christmas picnic.
Prom loved picnics. They were all about being outside, eating and playing games and being able to squeal as much as she liked without Grandad Peter P getting into grumpy-mode. This picnic was exciting because they went to the mystery place in Grandad Peter Grene’s big car.
Prom didn’t go in cars very often. She went to school in a room up the spiral stairs of the Peckerdale Grene tower. That was where she and her cousins Jin and Corin, and sometimes her other cousins Quinn and Cèilidh did their formal lessons. Her little cousins Tab and Tango would join them when they were old enough.
Peck, who was five years older than Prom, went to the human school in Patterdale as well as having lessons in the tower. He told Prom the best part of the big school was travelling there and back by bus. One day the bus broke down, and Peck fixed it while the driver was still staring hopelessly at the engine and waiting for the mechanic. He was always hoping that would happen again.
“How did you mend it?” Prom asked. She adored her big brother.
Peck shrugged. “Just did. That’s what I’m going to do. Fix cars. I’m a fix-it pixie, Dad says. That’s my manifestation.” He brought out the word with care and flushed faintly green with pleasure. Boy pixies did that, though they were never anywhere near as green as boy leprechauns.
Prom hoped Grandad’s car would break down so Peck could fix it.
There was a lot of traffic on the road because it was Christmas Eve. Christmas carols poured from the speaker in Grandad’s car. Prom loved the bright notes of harps and trumpets. Some of the carols were fay, which meant the music came from sweetwood flutes and a woodlin.
Prom wanted to know where they were going, but no one would tell her. The glamour Grandad put on the car made the windows blurry.
“We’ll know when we get there,” Granny Gentie said, giving Prom a hug scented with green growing things. She added, “I promise you’ll love this place, wherever it is.” Then she smiled, the way people did when they used Prom’s name without the capital P.
“The glamour keeps vehicle inspectors from wanting to see Grandad’s licence,” Peck said, raising his voice above the music.
“He’s got a licence,” Promise said.
“Of course he has. It just doesn’t stand up to too much scrutiny.”
The car swung left and crunched over what Promise thought must be rocks because they rattled. It bumped along the ground that didn’t feel like a road.
“I think this is a no cars past this point place,” Peck said.
Grandad laughed. “If we get stuck, you can fix it.”
They bumped on.
Later, the music stopped. Grandad conjured the door open, and everyone waited quietly for Prom to get out of the car. The glamour lifted and she saw the place they’d come to. A wide curve of shingle glimmered in the sun, as bits of quartz and mica refracted the light. A narrow, dashing river curved around the shingle bank, splitting and swirling around wet rocks that a brave person would be able to use as stepping stones to cross to the other side.
Promise gazed at that magic pathway. She hoped she was a brave person. On the other side of the river, the shingle sloped up to rocks and then to a steeply wooded cliff. She saw a track threading between the rocks and passing along the foot of the trees like a line of stitches in Granny Gentie’s embroidery.
Prom knew that was a strange thing to think about on this side of the gateways. If they’d been by a river in the pixie forest, magic would be expected. Over here, on the human side of the gates, where cars worked, and waterfolk didn’t visit, and where people always wore clothes, a landscape had to work so much harder to seem magical. She blinked and looked around her, almost crying with delight. It was such a perfect place for her picnic. It looked like over there, but it couldn’t be. They’d come here by car.