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A Secondhand Opinion of Who You Are

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In 3 weeks and 2 days, Sophia would go on an overnight trip with her school. They would go to Atlanta. They would learn about history and go to museums, and they would learn about science and go to the CDC. In 3 weeks and 2 days, Carol would drive Sophia to the school in the early evening to get on a bus, go to Atlanta, and come back in two days' time.

In 3 weeks and 4 days, at midday on a Friday, Carol would drive to Sophia's school, pick her up, and drive far, far away from Ed and whatever his eyes said he was wanting to do to his daughter.

Carol had planned it for eight months, getting the courage one night when Ed looked up from his dinner as Sophia cleared her plate and gave her a long look that made Carol fear for more than just Sophia seeing them fight.

"What?" Ed asked when he'd caught her looking.

"I was just looking at you under these new lightbulbs you put in," Carol answered, playing to the vanity he'd always carried on his outermost layer. "You look even more handsome than usual."

He'd puffed out his chest and jutted out his jaw, and Carol had realized all her years of staying, all her justifications, they were nothing compared to the look Ed had given their daughter.

Their daughter.

And so, after seeing Ed off to work the next morning, after driving Sophia to school, Carol took the car to the grocery store, got on the bus at the corner, and found her way to the women's shelter tucked deep in a neighborhood to make it harder to find.

"Have you thought about leaving before?" a woman named Joan asked. She sat behind a big, cluttered desk that did more to reassure Carol she wasn't alone than the friendly woman who'd opened the door.

"Yes," Carol said. "But I don't really have any money of my own, and I don't really know what to do."

"Does he have your passwords to things? To your e-mail and things?"

"Yes."

"Do you have a cell phone?"

"Yes, but he's the one who pays the bills, and he always looks it over."

"Does he track your movements?"

Carol had to think about that. "Yes," she said after a moment. "I mean, he calls on his lunch every day to see where I am."

"Has he ever followed you?"

"No," she said. "No, I've always been--" a good wife, she thought, and the words stuck in her throat. "No," she repeated.

Joan seemed to know what was happening, and given her cluttered desk, Carol could understand why. "Carol," Joan said very softly. "Carol, I can teach you how to get away from him. We can make a plan."

"How long will the plan take?" Carol asked.

"A while," Joan said. "We have to be careful."

"Deaths by spousal abuse are much more common after a woman tries to leave," Carol said. "A woman leaves her abusive partner an average of seven times before she actually gets out."

"Yes," Joan agreed. "Have you been doing some reading?"

"Just the brochures in the waiting room."

"If you want to read more--"

"I wasn't surprised by what those brochures said," Carol interrupted. "I've tried to leave before, but it--it seemed like it couldn't be done."

"And now?" Joan asked.

"Now it seems like I can't do anything else," Carol said. Joan held out her hand, palm up, and let Carol reach out and grab it.

"It will take time," Joan said. "But if you have patience, we can get you out of there."

"I'm nothing but patience," Carol answered, and the way Joan smiled sadly told Carol she'd heard that one before.

*

The first thing Carol needed was money. Enough to get away to a friend or relative. Carol had a sister she rarely talked to because Ed had said they didn't need to keep up with her. Carol knew her sister, Catherine, didn't have a lot of money.

"That's okay," Joan said. "Do you think Catherine would let you use a spare room for a little while?"

"I don't know," Carol said. "I haven't talked to her in years." Because Ed made me stop, she thought, but she didn't have to say it. In the lines of Joan's forehead, she read the understanding.

From the phone on Joan's desk, Carol dialed the number from memory. "Cathy," she said. "It's me."

There was a long pause filled with questions Cathy didn't ask. "What do you need?" she said instead.

"I'm leaving Ed," Carol answered. "Not right now, but soon. I really am. I'm calling you from a women's shelter. I'm not staying here, but I might later. But I need to make plans."

"You don't need to make plans," Cathy said, "you need to come stay with me."

Carol cried silently; like she'd learned to do after Sophia was born and Ed was still hitting her. "Cath--"

"I hate him," Cathy said. "And I was glad when you stopped calling because I didn't have to hear you dying on the line. And I'm so glad to hear your voice, Carol. I really am."

"What if I'm a burden to you? I know you don't have much money."

"Rather you a burden in my house than on my conscience. We'll work it out."

Carol passed the phone to Joan, who explained to Cathy they were working a long-term plan. "She won't be coming this month or next or for awhile, but I'm going to work with her to get her to you by a date we'll set together."

When Joan got off the phone, she looked at Carol and smiled like it didn't hurt. "Cathy says any date we set is good for her. So, I'm going to walk you through what you need to get out, and we'll pick a date when we get the groundwork laid, okay?"

"Okay," Carol said. "Yes."

She would need a cell phone Ed couldn't trace. An e-mail address he wouldn't know about and she wouldn't check at home. She would need a hiding place for the phone. She would need money.

"What can you do?" Joan asked.

"Not a lot," Carol said.

"That can't possibly be true. You're doing a great deal right now."

Carol thought about it. "I can sew," she said.

"What can you sew?"

"Anything, really."

"Do you do any sort of arts and crafts?"

"I crochet sometimes. I've made a few wreaths."

"Can you lie to Ed?"

Carol laughed at that. "Isn't that what I'm doing?"

"To his face, I mean. Not just a lie of omission."

"Yes," Carol said. "Absolutely."

"That's useful," Joan said. "Does he give you an allowance?"

"Yes."

"Does he pay attention to where it goes?"

"He asks me every night where I've been, and I sometimes have to show proof."

"Can you use your allowance for whatever you want?"

"Yes." It was how he tricked her, after it got bad. Giving her money to do what she wanted. After he'd hit her, after he'd said terrible things, and it was only much later--after Sophia--that Carol had realized how he'd trapped her, how she'd let herself be trapped. The brochures told her it wasn't her fault, but Carol was pretty sure it would be awhile before she felt that was true.

"Good," Joan said. "That helps."

*

"What the hell is this?" Ed said a week later when he came home and saw four Christmas wreaths and some crocheted handwarmers piled by the front door.

"The school is doing a bazaar to raise money for something or another," Carol answered, which was true. She added, "I thought I'd make a few things for them to raffle off," which was a lie.

"How much is this costing us?" Ed asked.

"Nothing more than the allowance you give me already," Carol said, which was also true.

"Well, okay," Ed said. "I suppose it's all right."

The truth of the matter was that Carol piled the pieces into the car every few days and drove them to the shelter after dropping Sophia off for school. She gave them to Joan, who gave them to people who were interested. Weeks later, visiting an art market with Ed grudgingly in tow (after he'd hit her so hard in the stomach she'd doubled-over and cried out), Carol spotted one of her wreaths in the stall of an artist she didn't know and wondered what to say if Ed noticed.

"We ain't giving her our money," Ed muttered as he grabbed her arm hard and pulled her away. "Probably a lesbian."

Carol glanced back at the woman and saw that she had heard. The woman was grinning like she knew a secret.. Did she know, Carol wondered. Did that woman realize who she was?

In the shower that night, Carol stared at the bruises on her arm and thought about how many times she'd hidden them. The next morning, she saw Ed look at Sophia again, and for the first time in many years, she felt pure, hot anger flash through her.

"What's that face for?" Ed asked as he stood up and left his plate on the table because clearing dishes was women's work.

"Just a bit of a headache," Carol said, and the lie came easier than ever. "I'm sure it'll clear up when I finish my coffee."

People bought the wreaths and handwarmers, then the scarves Carol made, and then the curtains and tablecloths she stitched during the day and hid in her fabric pile because Ed couldn't tell the difference.

Most of the money went to a savings account that had statements she had sent to a PO box she had rented with a little of her allowance. She spent some of it on a pre-paid cellphone, which she hid in different places of the house, changing its location every week or so just to be sure Ed wouldn't stumble on it.

"How much longer?" she asked Joan after four months.

"Let's pick a date," Joan said.

"Really?"

"Yes. Your things are selling well, and if you can keep making them once you move in with your sister, I think they'll keep selling."

"I don't know if I can," Carol said. "I don't know what the money situation will be. I can't just expect Cathy to pick up the bill for everything while I keep making wreaths and curtains and scarves."

"You can't, no," Joan agreed. "But you can get a job somewhere, I'm sure. Nothing great, but something that will let you bring in enough money that you can help with bills and buy supplies. There are plenty of Joann's and Hobby Lobby's in the Atlanta area where you could work."

"I saw my things at the art market," Carol said. "They were in some woman's booth."

"She's a volunteer here," Joan replied. "I showed her your things, and she liked them very much."

"Is she getting paid at all for selling my things?" Carol asked. "I don't want her to put herself in danger and not get something out of it."

"She makes a living at that art market. She doesn't need the money your items bring in. I made sure of that once they started selling."

"Thank her for me," Carol said. "Please."

"I will," Joan promised, and then they opened the calendar on her computer and picked a date.

*

The date was four months away, and Carol counted down the days. She kept a hard eye on Ed when Sophia was around, kept a harder eye on him when he might sneak away during the night. Two months before the date to leave, she had a moment of panic and dropped a dish of brussel sprouts.

"Why are you such a stupid bitch?" Ed asked, smacking her open-handed on the back of the head. In the early days of their marriage, before he'd become like this, he'd called her a klutz in a sweet voice and only tapped her gently.

"I'm sorry," Carol said. "I can make green beans."

"From a fucking can," Ed said, and he kicked her in the leg as she bent down. She nearly fell over, but she held position.

She glanced up as she was scooping up the brussel sprouts, and she saw Sophia staring hard at her dinner, eating it one measured spoonful at a time. She did not look up, even as Ed kept calling Carol names.

Good girl, Carol thought, and then she felt sick. I'm so sorry, she thought, and then she felt sicker.

*

Six days before escape, the stories started showing up on the news. People suddenly going mad and eating other people. People dying but coming back. A state of emergency. Federal disaster areas confirmed. FEMA intervention promised.

The day Carol was to have left, the day she'd have picked her baby girl up at school and driven in the opposite direction of home, the day she'd imagined time and again, including Sophia's cheer of triumph at her mother being brave--that day--Carol bundled Sophia into a car with as much as Ed could cram in the back, and they drove towards Atlanta in hopes of saving their lives.

I'll still save you, baby, Carol thought to herself. I swear, I will still save you.