A Thin Line -- A Short Story

Karen had been planning her escape for two weeks, sneaking small packages of supplies and hiding them in grocery bags in the trunk of her car. Clothes for herself and baby Charlie, disposable diapers, drinking water, and food that needed no refrigeration were the last things in since those were the things she would need to access constantly. She was pretty sure she had plenty for three days of travel, and that would be more than enough to get her to the cabin. Thankfully she didn’t need food for the baby, since she was nursing him and he wasn’t old enough to need anything else.

The sun was not yet up, but the sky made a pale blue and gold backdrop for the bare, black branches of the trees still holding water from the rain of the last week. She had to move quietly, holding the sleeping baby close to keep him warm in the morning chill. She couldn’t warm the car before they left, the noise of the engine would surely wake Esther and Bill.

She tucked the baby into his car seat, and was thankful he didn’t stir. Since she had just fed him, he should be good for at least three hours before they stopped. That would get her a good 150 miles out. It was 5 a.m., so if her in-laws stuck to their usual schedule, they would be getting out of bed at 8. It would be another hour after that before they would discover she and the baby were gone. By that time she should have reached Donna’s house where she would change cars so she couldn’t be traced. The brand new Volvo she and Daniel had bought before the baby was born would be replaced with a battered CRV. She left her cell phone on her nightstand, next to the picture of Daniel. The disposable one she bought yesterday was tucked into her pocket, along with a wad of cash. She couldn’t figure out how to close her bank account yet, because she didn’t know where she would settle. That was the one thing that still tied her to this place, this city, where Daniel had first lost a leg, and then his life. They had come here so that he could die, and so that his parents could help Karen with the new baby. And from the first day, she knew it was a terrible decision for everyone.

She eased herself into the driver’s seat and pulled the car door closed. For the first time she was grateful that Esther and Bill’s cars were the ones parked in the garage. Hers was parked at the curb, which made for an easier get-away.

Just as she pulled away, a light was switched on in the upstairs bathroom. “Shit!” Somebody was up. Hopefully whoever it was would not look out the window. She turned the headlights off and gradually accelerated until she reached the corner and turned. She was away. Away and headed into her own life, with her own baby. Tears streamed down her face, and the baby stirred in his sleep. “Sleep, Charlie, sleep…” she whispered, over and over, until he settled again. Her own tears would not stop.

She was making good time. Most of the water from the storm had found its way off the freeway and onto the shoulders or surface streets. She could see a lot of snow on the mountains, and hoped that by the time she was climbing the winding, narrow highway up to the cabin, the snowplows would have done their work.

It was the first time since they moved into Esther and Bill’s home that she had been on her own with him, except to feed him. His grandmother couldn’t stay away. She bathed him, changed him, rocked him, until Karen felt that he had not only left her womb, but was slowly being pulled farther and farther away. She understood that Esther’s loss of Daniel was driving her attachment to his child. But she had lost Daniel too, and this baby was the closest she could get to being with him again. Breathing in the baby as she nursed him was like taking a drink of water when thirst had overwhelmed her.

When Daniel was diagnosed a year ago, they felt sure that after treatment, he would make a full recovery. And for a few months, it seemed true. But shortly after the baby was born, his energy began to fade. He worried that without his help, Karen wouldn’t be able to manage the baby, the house, and his illness. So he took her home to his mother and father. Karen knew it was a mistake the first week they were there, but by then he was so ill it was too late to make any changes. Hospice care was ordered, and the house turned upside down as caregivers came and went.   

In the weeks after the funeral Karen was flattened by her grief, and had no energy to fight off the constant attentions of Esther. When she found Esther putting the baby to her own breast to see if her milk would come in again, she knew it was time to leave. She knew that if she stayed longer she would not only lose the baby, but her mind as well.

And hadn’t they made the case already in many little ways, that they did not think Karen really a fit mother for their grandchild? Oh they would take care of her, of course, poor thing. But Charlie was to be theirs to raise, another Daniel, a gifted, perfect, wonderful reflection of themselves.

Donna’s apartment was just a few more miles. Hopefully Charlie would be hungry. Her breasts were full and tight with milk. She needed to feed him, and soon. She was hungry, too. Hopefully breakfast had occurred to Donna, although remembering her old roommate’s habit of coffee only in the morning, she doubted it.

Traffic was getting heavy. The morning rush hour had begun. She checked the rear view mirror and saw a police car with flashing lights coming up on her left. Her heart skipped a beat, and she sped up. She pulled off the freeway and the police car followed. She blew through the stop sign and made a sharp right on the first street and then another sharp right into the driveway of the closest house. She scrunched down in her seat and turned the key in the ignition. She waited, holding her breath, but no police car showed up. Someone looked out the window of the house, and she quickly started the car and backed out. She retraced her route to get back on the freeway, but before she reached the on-ramp, another police car came from the other direction and slowed as it passed her, obviously checking her license plate. She made a quick turn onto the frontage road, and punched the accelerator. The police car followed her, siren blaring. She was frantic. They would catch her, and they would make her go back. She panicked and tried to make another quick right, barely keeping the car from rolling, and winding up in an irrigation ditch. It was too late. She couldn’t maneuver the car out of the ditch fast enough, and the police car pulled in behind her.

“Can I see your license and registration, please.” It wasn’t a question, it was a demand. She fumbled in her purse for her license, and pulled the registration out of the glove compartment.

Is this how she would feel from now on? Like a fugitive? If only her mother were still alive, she would have a safe place to go. But that safe place had been gone a long, long time. The cabin was the only safe place. Daniel’s parents didn’t even know it existed. Surely they wouldn’t find her there. She had to get there. Fast.

To her great relief, she was only given a written warning. She made her way back to the highway, flooded with relief.

She parked the car in the back of Donna’s apartment building and carried Charlie up the stairs. She knocked, softly at first, then louder when there was no response. Charlie began to cry. She sat down on the bench by the door, lifted up her shirt, and Charlie latched on to her breast. “What now – what the fuck now. Where IS she?” Then, as she was shifting Charlie to the other side, Donna came running up the stairs.

“I’m so so sorry! I wanted to make sure the car was full of gas and the tire pressure was okay. I thought I had enough time, but here you are! Come in, come in…”

Donna’s phone was blinking. Karen looked at the caller id and noticed the call was from William Strathern.

“Oh my god that’s my father-in-law. How on earth did they get your number? Thank god you weren’t home when the call came in! They can’t know where I am. I have to get away. As far away as I can.” Her cell phone. Of course. She left it because she didn’t want them to track her. She hadn’t thought about her call history. That would be the first thing they would check.

“Calm down, sweetie. I won’t give you away, you know that. When I call them back, IF I call them back, I’ll tell them I have no idea where you are. You’re safe. Unless they have filed a missing person report, which they can’t do for 72 hours, you’re safe. Sit. Here, I bought some coffee cake. Eat. I’ll make some coffee. Oh wait – you can’t drink coffee! I’ll make you some herbal tea.”

“You may have to stay here for awhile. There was a news report that there has been something of an avalanche on the 395. Isn’t that the road you take up to the cabin? They say it will take a couple of days to clear it.”

Karen stared at her. “An avalanche??!! There isn’t enough snow on those mountains that there could be an avalanche, surely!”

“No, you’re right, but there is enough MUD. That heavy rain brought down an avalanche of mud and completely blocked a section of the 395. No way through, no way around until they clear it.”

Charlie was fussing, and Karen put him on her shoulder to burp him. “I don’t understand why I didn’t hear that report while I was driving. I was listening to the radio.”

“They may not have gotten the news yet. Only reason I know is I have a friend who runs supplies up to the Lodge, and he told me he couldn’t get through. Don’t worry, they won’t let much time pass – the Lodge would lose too much business. In the meantime you’ll be safe here.”

Karen put the baby on a blanket on the floor. “Thank goodness he’s such a good sleeper, he’ll be out for three hours or more!”

“Why don’t you lie down for a bit? You look pretty worn out. You’ve been through so much. And you’re safe here. The couch is comfortable. I’ll unload your car and then, after you’ve rested, we can talk.”

“Hmmm yeah. Talk. That’s all Bill and Esther do. He’s a therapist, you know, and she was a social worker. They think they know everything about everybody, and they’d like to tell you how to grieve and how to get on with life and they never shut up! She keeps trying to take my baby away, my Charlie. We just need peace and quiet. And space.” Karen yawned, stretched, pulled an afghan over herself and closed her eyes.

Donna waited until she was sleeping, and then took the phone and Karen’s car keys. She opened the trunk of the car; a box of diapers fell at her feet.

She hit redial on the phone. “She’s here. I’ve given her something to help her sleep, so she should be out for at least eight hours. After all she’s been through I’m surprised she was able to navigate this far. You can come and get her.”

She carried the diapers and the baby clothes upstairs and put them next to the couch. Karen and her Charlie would be safe, at least for a few more hours.

Reality can be more than hard. For some, it can be impossible.  Charlie, Karen’s hope for the future and the last breathing connection to Daniel, had died in his sleep just two weeks ago.