She stood quietly for a long time. Thinking. Remembering.
The suitcase lay open on the bed behind her. It was one she had had for a long time now, but it was not the first.
The first had been a little pink thing with white and gray stripes. It was lined with pink taffeta and locked with its own little key, not much larger than that of a diary. She had been angry with her mother for some reason, so she had packed her ballet slippers along with her tutu, the dollar and forty-seven cents she had shaken loose from her piggy bank, her near-hairless doll named Susie, and a bologna sandwich. Everything was proceeding smoothly until her brother told on her. She had made it all the way over to Jillie’s house on the other side of the baseball field three blocks away when her mother drove up and put a stop to it all. She didn’t speak to her brother for several weeks after that until the rope on the tire swing broke and she had to ask him to fix it.
“Carolyn?” Her reverie was momentarily broken by her husband’s deep, gravelly voice as he stuck his head around the doorway. “Fix up some stew for supper. I’m gonna have a long day today. I’ll be home around six or seven.” She turned to nod at him, but he hadn’t waited for an answer so she resumed her position at the window. Funny. He hadn’t even noticed the open suitcase. He noticed little about her anymore.
She thought about swinging in that old tire swing. How free it all felt with the breeze brushing her cheeks, how dizzy when she spun around and around. Those had been happy days though she didn’t realize it at the time. Does any child ever realize it at the time?
Her second suitcase was part of a two-piece set she had gotten one Christmas. There was a medium-sized case and a makeup case that matched. She was fourteen and in love with life. Everything took on an importance far beyond that which a more mature person would have assigned to it. One pimple was the end of the world. A tube of lipstick called “Angel Fire” was manna from heaven. And her first heels, though not very high, elevated her to Hollywood glamour—never mind that her legs were not yet developed and she had that comical “chicken little” appearance as she paraded around in them. In those years, there were only highs and lows. Nothing in between. And when her brother called her “chicken legs” in front of his good-looking football teammates, her world crashed through the floor and she wished both her brother and herself dead on the spot. That had driven her into her room where she had refused to speak to anyone for two whole days. Finally, hunger and a sense of futility drove her downstairs to the dinner table where she glowered at anyone who dared to mention the horrid earlier event. But even that had not been the reason she had packed that second suitcase.
The real reason was that the worst thing in the world had happened. Connie Bennett, with the long blonde hair and green eyes—a person she had thought was her friend—suddenly became the fixation of a boy Carolyn was madly in love with.
She smiled as she leaned against the window. She couldn’t even remember the boy’s name now. But at the time, she had been devastated to the point of making a fool of herself when in the local Ritz Theatre during a Saturday matinee, she had spotted Connie sitting several rows behind her. She got up to leave, making her way up the aisle, leaned over and said to Connie with all the outrage a teenage girl could muster, “Boy stealer!” And then she ran from the theatre in tears, went home, packed her suitcase, and headed out for the bus station.
This time, she had over thirty dollars saved. It was for material for a prom dress her mother was going to make when she was finally old enough to go to prom—and for satin shoes that would be dyed to match. She had dreamed of that prom dress for three years before she ever got it. First, it was to be pink. Then blue. Then something with a pattern though she never could settle on what kind. She had finally ended up with spring green satin under clouds of tulle. And her date, Bobby Taylor, had given her a pale orchid to wear on her wrist.
Obviously, she hadn’t run away at fourteen. She had gotten to the bus station all right, but Mr. Forbes refused to sell her a ticket and called her mother instead. She smiled now, thinking of Mr. Forbes. He was a nice old gentleman. She wondered what had become of him.
The third time should have been the charm. By that time, she was married. Like every new bride she thought it was going to be romance, roses, and just last forever and ever. But, of course, it wasn’t. And it didn’t. It wasn’t a year later that she discovered her husband was cheating on her. She packed her suitcase—this time a substantial piece of luggage—and was in the car headed out of town when she was spotted by a friend who hailed her down. The friend worked in the drugstore. She wanted to congratulate her.
“Congratulate me? For what?” Carolyn had asked.
Her friend was all smiles. She turned her head and said, conspiratorially, “Your doctor sent over a prescription for you. Special vitamins! For your little bun in the oven!” That’s the way she talked. As though the world would explode if she uttered the forbidden words, “baby” or “pregnant.”
And that was how Carolyn learned she was going to have her first child.
Wind out of runaway sails, she drove for a couple of miles, parked on the side of the road, and cried. Then she turned the car around and went back home, lugged the suitcase upstairs, and unpacked her things. Ironically, he never even knew she had gone. And that was that.
Until today. Today she was determined to finally do it. The yearning was still strong in her for the places she could go, the people she could meet, the things she could see. It was all a dream delayed far too long. She had always been somebody’s daughter, somebody’s wife, somebody’s mother, conforming herself to whatever was expected, whatever the current norm. But what she wanted was to be herself. She just wanted to be Carolyn Martin. Her own person. Finally.
The ache in the pit of her stomach never really went away in all those years of longing and dreaming. He didn’t really love her, her husband. He had as much as told her so at least once or twice over the years, though he probably wasn’t aware of it. And her kids—three of them—were grown. They would be okay. They were all busy with their own lives now and would get along fine without her.
She turned from the window to the mirror on the dresser and looked at herself as though seeing a stranger. Her hair was gray now and her face was tired. She was no longer the happy, bouncy girl of fourteen or even of twenty-three when she had married. But it was still a strong face that looked back at her. Not pretty, but not homely either. A good face. An intelligent face. And it pleased her.
She began to pack her clothes: a cashmere sweater she had purchased with her own money saved from working holidays in Booker’s Dress Shop, two pair of pants, several tops and blouses, a pair of sensible black sh—
The doorbell rang.
Dropping the shirt she had been folding, she went to the window and looked out, but she couldn’t see over the roof of the entry overhang. It was probably a salesperson anyway. She would ignore it. At least that was her intention, but whoever it was kept ringing until she finally dropped everything and headed down to open the door. It was her neighbor, in tears.
“Margaret? Are you all right?” Margaret didn’t look all right to Carolyn at all,so she brought her into the kitchen and parked her in a chair at the table while she put the kettle on for tea.
As Carolyn prepared the tea, Margaret poured out her tale of woe between sobs. Piecing everything together as best she could, Carolyn learned that Margaret’s husband had beaten her even though the poor woman was almost seven months pregnant. Carolyn cringed in sympathy and felt a certain gratitude that at least her own husband had never hit her. He had thrown things in her general direction which, to be fair, she had probably deserved, but she could honestly say he had never once laid his hands on her in anger.
She plied Margaret with hot tea and a couple of warmed-up biscuits from the tin beside the stove and quietly listened until Margaret got it all out.
There was nothing, really, that Carolyn could do, so while Margaret talked, her mind wandered until she found herself watching the vase of cut roses on the sideboard as they lost their petals to gravity one by one. As each petal floated down she became more aware of time passing. The slowness of the dropping petals somehow only emphasized how fast time was flying by.
After as much tea and sympathy as she could reasonably dispense, she saw Margaret to the door, and went back upstairs to finish packing. The last thing she did was place an envelope containing a message to her husband before the mirror on the mantel where he usually laid his keys. It wasn’t a long note, nor was it in any way sentimental. It simply stated that she was leaving and wished him all the best. She signed it, simply, Carolyn, and then called a taxi to take her to the train station.
She wasn’t exactly sure, yet, where she was going, but she could decide that when she got to the station. At least she had sufficient funds in her investment account that, if she were very careful, she wouldn’t have to worry too much about starting over again wherever she might end up.
Her investment account! She loved the very sound of it. Her husband knew nothing of it. It was hers alone, built from amounts she had, herself, earned over the years. When she had saved enough, she had bought a stock here, sold one there, put some of her funds into a mutual fund, some into a money market. And she had, with great satisfaction, watched the account grow until she had nearly two hundred thousand dollars in it. It was no fortune these days, but it would see her through if she were careful.
At the station, she saw that the trains departing soonest were bound for either New York or Atlanta. The ticket agent waited patiently while she considered these options. She, at last, decided on Atlanta since she figured her money would go a lot further there. She was in the process of paying for her ticket when her cell phone rang.
“Mrs. Martin?” said the voice on the other end.
“This is Robert Hanson at Smith and Wafford. I was just calling to see what you want to do about those stocks you bought last year.”
“Oh. Hello. I’m not sure I want to do anything. Why? Should I?”
“Well, I don’t know if you are aware, but they have absolutely skyrocketed in value. Your account is now worth over a half million dollars. I thought maybe you might like to lock in some of those gains.”
Carolyn was, for the first time in her life, at a complete loss for words. She found herself stammering as she asked Mr. Hanson’s advice in the matter. She listened and then said, “Yes. Sell half of each one and move those funds into the money market account. And, thank you. Thank you very much!”
She hung up and found herself staring blankly at the ticket agent who was still waiting patiently for payment of her ticket.
“I’m so sorry!” she said. “I’ve changed my mind.”
She handed the ticket back to the bewildered agent, turned, and made her way to the nearest bench in the waiting area. She almost collapsed onto one of the pew-like benches.
A half million dollars! She exhaled loudly and leaned back against the polished wood of the seat. She began to laugh as an unfamiliar and indescribable feeling of freedom washed over her. Suddenly she was no one’s wife. No one’s mother. She was Carolyn Martin and was free because she had power. That was the only word for it. For the first time in her life, she had real, honest-to-goodness power. And this revelation brought with it the most amazing thing: the stripping away all of her fears and doubts. They fell away from her like the rose petals had fallen from the cut stems on the sideboard in her kitchen. And she realized something else. There’s no rush. There’s no rush to go anywhere now. This new-found freedom had somehow magically erased the urgency to run away she had felt just a few hours earlier.
She took up her suitcase, went outside, and hailed a taxi for home where she unpacked and returned her things to her closet. Then she shoved the suitcase beneath the bed and went downstairs.
The note was still on the mantel and she took it up and held it without opening it. She tore it into several pieces and put it into the kitchen trash.
What had her husband asked for this morning? Was it stew? Yes. That was it. She decided stew actually sounded pretty good and began preparing the ingredients. As she chopped the vegetables, she found herself humming and thinking about how nice her home here was. It was comfortable. Familiar. Why leave it? Why leave a place you have fussed over for a good many years until you have it just the way you wanted it? Besides, she could always change her mind tomorrow or the next day or even next year. There was no rush. Not now.
She began to sing.
RLM Cooper is a summa cum laude graduate of the University of Alabama in Huntsville whose short stories have been published in online magazines, reviews, and print anthologies both in the United States and abroad. She lives in the Pacific Northwest. For links to her work, please visit her Facebook page or her blog: