For those following along with my novel Asunder, the first thing you may notice is that I’ve changed the name of one of the central characters from Carol to Caroline, because that’s what writers do. Until a manuscript is delivered to a publisher for the final time, we edit, edit, edit. Delete, delete, delete. Change, then change back, then change back again. Carol sounded too old for my character, who is 26. So, let me introduce you to Caroline, whose name is much more appropriate.
Caroline is a battered woman living under the tyranny of her husband Rick. She has a nine-year-old son, Thomas. Rick is not Thomas’s father, and although he has yet to turn his violent behavior on the boy, Caroline is certain he will. Discovering Rick’s set of car keys, Caroline picks Thomas up from his elementary school in Dry Branch, Georgia, and flees. It is 1998, a year before the nationwide Amber Alert is implemented.
Here’s Caroline at the moment of decision:
Her frayed canvas sneakers let out a high-pitched whine with each turn, hurting her head even more, but she kept moving, afraid the slightest change in her step, a skip in the rhythm, would bring the choreography to a crashing halt, shattering the opportunity in front of her. Chewing her fingernails, she eyed the car keys with suspicion each time she passed. Was it a trick?
She looked at the kitchen wall clock. 1:43 p.m. Time stuck in her throat like a piece of Thomas’s Wonder Bread, a painful lump of immovability. Thomas would be released from school in less than thirty minutes. She paced, trying to think but not to think. What had that woman said? At the Thanksgiving football game last year? It had been overcast, with a 70 percent chance of rain, but that didn’t dampen Bull Dog football fever. There is help, she’d said. Caroline had recognized the woman, but didn’t know from where. It had been ages since they had spoken. Yes, ages. When Thomas was in preschool. Her name was Laura, or Emily, or Rachel.
‘You can get help,’ the woman had said. Caroline had looked beyond the woman’s shoulder. Listening, but not listening. She hadn’t been able to look her in the eye. The woman had pressed a note into her hand, and told her to put it in her purse. ‘Look at it later, when you’re alone,’ she had said. The Dry Branch high school marching band was playing Dixie Chicken, a fan favorite. ‘There is a center in Macon. They have a hotline.’ The woman had stopped talking when Rick came back. With a flask tucked into his armpit and a pulled pork sandwich in his hand, he had announced to Caroline it was time to go back to their seats. Hot sauce had clung to the corners of his mouth. He didn’t bother acknowledging Laura or Emily or Rachel. Caroline held the note close to her side, crumpled it, and let it fall to the dusty ground. Rain drops followed. The crowd cheered as the home team took the field.
Caroline picked up the keys and tightened her fingers around them. She stood in the hall. The choreography stopped. The world around her waited for her cue. Just go. Don’t think. She debated taking one last look around. It was her parents’ house, the house she’d grown up in, where Caroline and her sister would run to after skinning a knee or falling off a bike. Its outside walls were built of strength and security, inside of love and forgiveness and goodnight kisses. Memories of children laughing and playing flashlight tag, the smell of peach pie and the chatter of her mama’s friends over a friendly game of bridge, the cherry-tobacco smell of her daddy’s pipe and his ivory backgammon set. These had all faded now. As muted as the striped gold and burgundy wallpaper in the hallway. The memories would have to suffice; there was no time for one last look.
She turned the Victorian glass doorknob of her daddy’s front door and walked out.