Broken Promises


One Sunday morning a few months ago I woke up with this story buzzing around in my head. On most mornings I wake up, take a shower, make a cup of coffee or grab breakfast, and spend some time just relaxing before I do anything remotely productive. Not on this Sunday, though. On this Sunday I rolled over, grabbed my computer off the ground, and wrote this piece in about ten minutes.

I found it again some months later. It was only after I spent a bit of time editing and tweaking it that I realized where the inspiration had probably come from.

So here is my (unconscious) take on this flash fiction story, which is usually attributed to Ernest Hemingway (even though nobody really knows where it came from):

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Comments welcome.


“Okay, sir, we’re all set.  I’m sorry, but the refund is only for the materials.  The setting fee isn’t refundable.”

“Sure,” I said absently.  “Makes sense.”

“The only thing I need now is the actual item.”

In a daze, I looked up from the glass counter and into the soft brown eyes of the young woman in front of me.

“Right,” I said, glancing down at my hand.  “Of course.”

I tried to give it to her, but for some reason I couldn’t get my arm to move.  I attempted to lift it, to do as the woman had asked, but my entire body seemed unresponsive.  It was the strangest thing.

All I could think was that I wasn’t supposed to be here.  Through my entire childhood, all of my relationships, the ups and downs, the joy, sadness, and everything in between, I’d never once imagined myself in this situation.

I felt a strange numbness inside, as if it wasn’t really me standing in the jewelry store at that moment.  I didn’t know if I should be crying, shouting, complaining, or anything else.

I wondered what it meant that I wasn’t any of those things.  That I just…was.

The woman in front of me put the hand she had extended across the counter back down by her side and smiled.  Her smile was delicate, as if she was afraid that showing too many of her pearly white teeth would break me like a pane of glass, or that showing too few would seem unsympathetic.

I wondered how many of these transactions she’d done before.

“I’ll give you a minute,” she said.

I watched as she walked a short distance away to a computer and began moving the mouse around, pretending to click things on the screen.  I figured she likely wasn’t doing anything important – she was just giving me space.

I felt a small flicker in my chest, possibly the sign of an emotion when I never thought I’d feel anything again.  That feeling was appreciation.  Like the tiniest flame in a desert at midnight, trying vainly to warm the cold sand around it.

I looked back down at the engagement ring clutched between my thumb and index finger.  It glittered there, like a promise for tomorrow, even though I knew that all the promises for tomorrow had been broken.  The stone wasn’t large, but it was what I’d been able to afford, and when I had finally put it on her finger she’d told me that it was perfect.

“Ready, sir?”

“I… Yes.  Here.”

I passed the ring across the counter and a minute later she handed me a receipt.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.  I hope I see you back in here soon.  For a happier occasion.”  She paused, as if weighing whether or not to continue.  Eventually, she did.  “The day will come, I promise.”

“I hope so.”

I thanked her one last time and walked out of the store, thinking the entire way that returning the ring had been hard, but not nearly as hard as returning the unused crib.

Not nearly as hard as parting with the unworn pink clothes.

16 comments on “Broken Promises”

  1. Oh, sure, rip our hearts out and then not tell us the rest of the story! And right before Christmas. You, sir, will get nothing but coal in your stocking this year. Mark my words!

    Still, very well done and it brought me to tears. I stood beside him and wanted to squeeze his shoulder reassuringly.

    – Deandra

  2. I like this… but the end is a bit too incongruous. There’s not enough in the story to link the return of engagement ring to a lost child. Unless the loss dissolved the marriage… but then the wedding ring would have to be returned. Yeah.
    Maybe another kind of return would be a more fitting end, something referring to the death of the fiancé to be, maybe.

    1. I think in my mind it was a car crash where the fiance and unborn child died – and that he returned the ring because they weren’t necessarily the richest couple (maybe he had to pay for the funeral?), which I referenced a bit when I said the ring had been what he could afford. I do appreciate the feedback though!

  3. I agree with the above comment and to be honest, it took me a moment to realize that it was a man returning the ring.

    Ironically, I’ve been canoodling on a story with the same inspiration! Six little words have such impact…

  4. I read it the first time round and the ending surprised me for some readon – your story drew me into the man’s inconsolable ennui. Then some strong compelling force that rose from nowhere made me read it again, and only did the story congeal into something more tangible. And then I read it a third time, and it unfurled into something else totally. Damn, this lovely story keeps on giving. I can see how that Ernest Hemingway quote fits into the picture, but the feeling evades all attempts at literal comprehension.

    …well, what I really wanted to say was: well-done!

      1. My pleasure! It’s a delight to read something that resonated so strongly with me, even though I couldn’t pin down what drew me to it exactly.

  5. The bit about the unworn pink clothes tore me up inside! I thought maybe they were getting married because the girl was pregnant, but she lost the baby and so broke it off. I didn’t know, of course, but I thought it was the kind of piece where you didn’t need to know. It was a snapshot of a moment. I especially like the story of how you wrote it. I really must begin being more productive myself. Thank you for this.

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