It was 1933. The first Sunday of July.
I remember that day as if they were as nearby as yesterday.
Its weight was light but it begged to be held with its handle wrapped around my lonesome hand. Its outer casing protected its inside possessions. Naturally. That was its role.
For a moment I hesitated but willed my hand to reach. I reluctantly picked it up – its facade obtrusive and offensive. Damaged and tattered it gave view into its history but only its physical history. Mysterious inside details it refused to divulge unless its master and owner graced permission.
Portmanteau. With red leather skin.
Bruised. Like me.
It is my faithful companion, my traveling bag. My suitcase. My whole life up until that 16th year. Everything that was me was in that colored, ragged case.
I decided to leave home in pursuit of life. No one would miss me.
The problem was – I didn’t know what my dreams were or what I desired from life. All I knew is that I didn’t want to die – and I was heading more towards death every day that I stayed.
Disturbed, despite the fact that I am probably too young to be truly disturbed, by my lack of dreaming I decided to pursue these unknown dreams and find what I was missing in my soul. And in my heart. Perhaps it was somewhere patiently waiting to be found. I sincerely hoped it was.
My father once told me that I am unique in that I have the rare possession of green eyes. That they were the window to my passionate soul. Green as emerald sea water that traveled the world’s oceans. Green as healthy and growing grass.
I sighed. I havent seen thriving green grass in years. Only dust and dirt.
My hair, the color of hay straw was down and flowed down to the small of my back. It was as wild as my eyes.
Standing in the beginning dawn of this nearly deserted town the desolate aura surrounded me. It pinched at my skin.
I turned full circle to gaze at my surroundings one last time. It was too early for anyone to be up and moving. It was a lazy town, one that dragged your spirits down. Happiness was a rare find here.
I wore my best outfit. A flower-print dress who’s hem just brushed my bony knees. The small pink rosebuds blanketed the ivory cotton with femininity and love.
The dirt roads beckoned travel and movement. They were left alone for far too long.
My scuffed brown boots befriended the dirt that blew with a pressing urgency. It was as if the road and wind conspired to push me and urge me to go already. Get moving! Flee! They spoke to me.
Here I was. A young girl – leaving the only home she’s ever known. It was a disruptive home that held nothing for me and my newly beloved future. I refused to be a slave any longer to depression and poverty.
One foot after another I walked away. Away from this world. Each step resolute and firmly dedicated to its purpose.
I didn’t have a plan but I know what I wanted. I choose life.
The next town over had a train station and I had stolen enough money for a one way trip to somewhere.
Walking for hours I had a lot of time to think.
I didn’t mind the long walk. The morning weather was cool and the breeze lightly brushed my face. The wind was against me but I was grateful for the challenge.
My mother had left when I was very young. The pain had faded from my heart because I barely knew her. But her decision was poor. I was determined to find her and tell her that she was wrong to leave me, defenseless, in the rough custody of only my father and uncle and no female presence.
My father was resident to a home of despair – without my mother he was nothing and to him I was nothing because I looked like her. He was a different man once my mother was gone which hurt me more than anything else. Eventually he befriended suicide by method of alcoholism and I was left to an uncle who continuously accused me of being a burden.
I’m stuck with you girl. You eat all my food girl. Clean this house girl. Stop making noise girl.
It was always “girl, girl, girl” and I had at first stubbornly corrected my Uncle. “It’s Cora. Cora Grace, Uncle Karl.” But he wasn’t having anything to do with learning about me, his only family left there. As far as he was concerned I was left to him to make his life worse than it already was.
I glanced down at my travel bag. The dust had coated with the help of the persistent winds.
By late afternoon I had made it to the train station. No one paid attention to me. I was a simple, plain girl and everyone was bustling around busy with their own lives. Too preoccupied to care about a child alone.
I purchased a one way ticket to the farthest destination from these godforsaken eastern towns. Patience was certainly a virtue I had learned and adapted to. So I waited with fortitude under no fear whatsoever that my Uncle would come after me.
“California.” I whispered to myself. California was a city of hope for the American dream to be revived. People traveled to California to help breathe life into the weak economy. I wanted to be a part of that.
Once I climbed onto the train I felt a wave of emotion grip me. Anxiety. Fear. Excitement. And most importantly - freedom!
I kept telling myself that anywhere was better than home. Home. If that’s what you would have called the shanty house I grew up in.
The train ride eventually lulled me into a deep sleep. I woke with the cease of movement. Disoriented and groggy I stepped off of the train. I had originally planned to … well … plan during my train ride.
In effort to look like I knew where I was going I followed a larger portion of the train passengers towards the shops and restaurants.
America was still struggling to cope from the Great Depression in ’29 so the restaurants were pretty bare. I had stopped at the busiest one. Standing by a frontal window I heard my stomach growl and felt my mouth water.
Passerby’s and the occasional customer started taking notice of me, my solitude, and my portmanteau. I decided the front of the restaurant wouldn’t do me any good unless a sum of money appeared in one of my dress pockets at that exact moment.
Hovering in the back of the restaurant I prayed for scraps of a meal unfinished. The aromas tortured and teased my taste buds and my stomach ached with need.
So much of my mind and energy was focused on morsels of food and I pointlessly wish a plate into existence when a nearby scuffle startled me.
Frozen with fear I stood and sensed the noise maker getting closer to me. Finally the street light revealed my boisterous alley companion. I used my luggage as a shield and braced for attack.
It was a dog. An animal hungrier than me. It crept slowly toward me licking its lips in anticipation that I possessed food – or it thought that I was food.
The dog was scruffy, dirty, and scrawny. I squatted down to the dog’s eye level and waited for him to come to me.
“Dog!” I heard a man’s voice. “Dog! Where are you boy?!” He screamed. The dog cowered behind me. Before I could decide to run the man appeared.
“Dog! Come here!” The faint-hearted dog slinked towards its master, the man who was eyeing me up and down for a long moment. He also noticed the portmanteau, a guiltless bystander.
“Where are your parents, girl?” The man finally spoke.
Girl. I resentfully thought but I simply replied, “Gone.”
Another long pause ensued. “I must be on my way.” I said and was about to turn away when the man grumbled, “Are you hungry?”
My stomach’s incessant growls gave me away before words could betray it.
“You may have dinner with me and my son. Follow me.”
My gut denied the invite but I was too starving to listen. I was so hungry.
The man’s house was past the restaurants and past the shops and into a darker area of the hectic town. The house was small and bare. The son appeared to be about my age if not a year or two older. He was bruised on his face and his arms. When he caught me staring at his arms he rolled down his shirt sleeves.
The man poured an amber liquid into a tall glass and finished half in one gulp. The boy placed the food on the table and we all ate in silence. I was surprised because I figured they would be curious about their guest. A young girl migrating without parental advisory.
I helped the boy to clear the table and wash the dishes. I even pet the lonely-eyed dog.
“Thank you very much for the meal sir. Thank you.” I said nervously. Everyone was so silent that it made me uneasy. My gut granted the courtesy of a second warning.
“I don’t want to intrude on your evening any longer. I should continue on to my friend’s home. Thank you again.”
My hand on the door knob I was so close to gaining my freedom once more.
“Hey, girl. Where are you going.” The drunken man slurred. These weren’t questions – they were statements. “You think that was a free meal?”
I hadn’t realized the man had left the table and was advancing towards me.
The boy watched and the dog ran to a hiding spot. It was probably grateful for the attention to be redirected from him for once.
Grabbing my hand, without the need to squeeze hard for I was a weak child, he pulled me toward a room that held little furniture.
“Please let me go.” I gasped over and over. I struggled against his grip and he backhanded my face.
Disoriented from the hit I felt and tasted the blood on my lips. He groped and grabbed. This had happened to me before with my Uncle. But I damn sure wasn't going to let it happen again … if I could help it.
I knew the boy was aware of what was happening.
I tried to reach my hand calmly toward my right boot. I kept a knife hidden for situations like this. Anguish set in when I pulled the knife from my boot but it fell to the ground with a loud clank.
Panic set in and I started to fight back as violently as I could - this was about to go too far. I was so terrified that I couldn’t find my voice to scream.
I glanced toward the door, seeing the boy peek through the door way, begging him with my eyes for help.
Silent tears rolled down my face and I braced for the pain I knew would soon follow my desperate plea.
Giving up all hope I abandoned my attempts to resist.
And that is when the boy became a man of action. He charged at his inebriated father and slammed a heavy plank over his head
My trembling hands grabbed the knife from the ground and I held it straight in front of me. The boy now stood by me and he was ready and willing to strike again.
“Stay back!” I yelled – my voice shook but the tone was angry and harsh. The man lay on the floor groaning and reeling from the pain.
To God I swore I wouldn’t let this happen to me again if I could help it – even if I had to kill.
I put my knife back in its hiding spot and moved to possess the shot gun that lay previously unnoticed behind the bedroom door. I aimed straight and true at the intoxicated fool.
The boy, who hadn’t uttered a word prior, told me where his father’s stash of money was. I hastily stored it in my other dress pocket and we ran – into the dark cover of the night. Not even the stars had made their gracious appearance this black night.
We ran. And ran. And ran. Our lungs had begged us to slow. Our knees petitioned for rest. Our hearts raced with the exhilaration of escape combined with the fear of potential capture. And worse – our impending fate if caught and imprisoned.
Onward we moved. Side by side we ran down the road not knowing what our next steps would be; not knowing anything about each other except that we were both victims of abuse.
The dog had followed eager for escape and freedom despite the risk of leaving the only home it knew.
Sweat traced our skin in the warm, moist summer evening. The boy carried the shotgun as if he were a soldier at war, waiting for the moment he would have to fire. In my eyes he certainly held the honor of a soldier.
Finally we made it two towns over in the northwest direction to a coastal town and discovered an unoccupied, covered alleyway to sleep in. No words were exchanged between us for exhaustion took control of every motor skill we naturally owned as humans. Together we slept through the night with the dog curled up at our feet.
Dawn soon approached with a red sky that warned and cautioned that our continual movement was necessary. We ran through three towns this time as the boy led the way. I followed without question flanked by my portmanteau and the nameless dog.
Finally we stumbled upon another coastal town that was busier than any we had seen thus far. It was a stormy day, though, so our desires to explore were dampened. We searched for shelter from the lightning and rain. There was a sundry shop open with an extremely low customer count, unlike the other surrounding stores. The less people the better.
As we entered the store the bell rang to announce our arrival. My teeth were chattering and the cold from the rain gripped me. The dog lay outside waiting for our return.
“Can I help you?” A woman appeared by the counter.
“Um…” My teeth chattered so much I could barely speak. “We just needed to hide from the rain ma’am.”
“Well if you’re in my store then you have to buy something.”
The boy, whose name I had just learned to be William but who went by Billy, spoke further. “I plan to purchase a drink for us to share ma’am.”
I fished out the small bit of money we had between us.
The woman’s harsh expression seemed to take a turn in an empathetic light. She grabbed a soda pop for us to share. “It’s on the house.”
We said ‘thank you’ in unison and smiled at the refreshing taste of the soda pop. I had only had soda once before in my life. What a treat!
“Where you two travelling to?” The adult in the woman was clearly picking up on the signs that the kids were without parental guidance.
I let Bill speak for us. “We are travelling to meet my Aunt.” He spoke firmly.
“Are you brother and sister?” She pried further.
“No. We are travelling friends.”
“Yet only one of you carries luggage?”
“Yes, ma’am. My Aunt holds my belongings.”
“I see.” She hesitated and paused for a few moments. “Do you need a place to rest tonight? I live alone so there is nothing to worry about.”
I had tried to clean my face the best I could but my lip had swelled from the hit and the dried blood was still visible.
Billy took the lead again. “Yes ma’am – please.”
“My name is Helen. What are your names?” Her voice seemed to be calmer now.
“My name is Billy and this is….”
“Mary.” I interjected. I’m not sure why I gave a false name. My mind and mouth conspired to shield my true name.
The woman paused for a moment and smiled. “Well it is nice to meet you both. I was thinking of closing the shop earlier than normal today. We’re not very busy due to the rain. Why don’t you sit in the back room for now and relax. There are cookies back there.”
We both smiled in delight. Cookies!!
Soon enough we were arriving at Helen’s home. It was bright, warm, and inviting. This was a home. This was how I had pictured it.
Billy and I were to share a room that night. I placed my portmanteau safely in the closet.
“Would you like to unpack your suitcase Mary?” Helen asked me.
“No thank you Helen.” I closed the doors that would protect my dependable companion.
We dined at an old oak table on the porch that night. The weather had cleared and it was warm and breezy outside.
The three of us became very good friends and discussed much stuff.
“So,” Helen spoke decidedly. “Tell me the truth you two. Where are your parents?”
We glanced at each other and knew we had to be honest. This woman was so kind. We just couldn’t lie.
Billy looked down as if he was afraid to speak all of a sudden.
I decided to be brave and speak aloud now. “My mother left when I was young and my father died long ago.”
Again the woman seemed to waver. Perhaps she was disturbed by my story?
“My father beat me all the time. And the dog. He used to beat my mother too. But she was smart enough to leave.” Bill spoke lowly and looked away.
Helen frowned and seemed to stumble finding the right words.
“No wonder you two found each other.”
We looked at each other and then back at Helen.
“How about some pie?” Helen walked swiftly to the kitchen and returned with a cherry pie.
Billy & I scarfed it down in no time.
While we sat watching the stars that night I asked Helen what her story was.
“Well…” She began with a tone that told me she wasn’t quite sure what she should share. “I lost my family too. We lived very well on the east coast. My husband and I and his nephew and niece (his sister had passed). We had a beautiful home. It was perfect. Everything was as perfect as a dream. Until Wall Street crashed.”
“That’s what hurt America.” I interrupted.
“Yes exactly. It hurt America very much. My husband was the finest investor there was. Top in his firm. We lost everything that year. Our money was gone. Everything he had helped others invest was gone. We all felt it. The pain of everything being taken away.”
Helen was hurt. You could hear it in her voice and see the sadness in her brown eyes.
She continued, her eyes staring off into the land. “My husband couldn’t cope afterwards. I tried everything.”
“What happened?” I asked. Sometimes hearing other people’s stories takes the pain off your own but it also allows you to feel other pain. There are always people that have it worse than you. Don’t misunderstand. I did not enjoy hearing someone else’s pain. It’s just easier to handle pain when you have someone to talk about it with I suppose.
“He left. Three years ago. I havent seen him since.”
“Do you know where he went?” I asked surprised – who would leave such a kind woman like Helen.
“I do not.” She was truly heartbroken. I remember that look. I saw it on my father’s face when my mother had left. But I could tell she had done like me and just pushed it behind her.
“What about the children? His niece and nephew?” I looked around but saw evidence of only one person’s living. And besides, Helen did say that she lived by herself.
“They left too,” her voice cracked. “They went in search for my husband, their uncle. And I have never seen them again. I’ve looked. Everywhere.” She sobbed lightly.
“I’m sorry Helen.” I touched her hand. “I know what it is like for someone you love to leave you behind.”
“Yes. You do don’t you.” Helen squeezed my hand back.
The next morning I didn’t want to leave. Helen offered for us to stay another night which turned into another night and another…and so on.
Over a course of a few weeks we had become a patched together family. Like a quilt. Different pieces brought together to make a whole – to fulfill a purpose.
One morning over toast and honey and tea Helen said she wanted to speak to us.
“Billy, Mary…” She smiled at us both which relieved the tension we both felt. We were curious to see if she was going to kick us out. We loved it here but we were prepared to go if necessary.
“I wanted to ask both of you an important question.”
“Do you want us to leave Helen?” Billy asked sadly.
“Leave?” Helen chuckled. “Heavens, no! I was going to ask you both if you would like to live here. Permanently. With me as your guardian.”
I gasped with joy. “Yes Helen. I do! I do!” I ran around the table to hug her. She felt like the mother I had always wanted. The type of mother I craved to hold me and brush my hair and take care of me, a naïve girl of 16.
“What about you Billy?” Helen reached for his hand.
Billy contemplated the idea for a moment.
“My father…” he started.
“Billy. Understand this. You may leave if you change your mind. I’m sure you love your father despite what he had done to you. You will not be held here against your will. Why don’t we give it a try and see how you like it here. When you’re ready to leave you may. Your dog may stay as well of course.” Helen smiled. I know she feared for him returning home just as much as I did.
“Okay.” Billy smiled back. “Okay. Thank you Helen.”
From that point on we each had our assigned chores. We didn’t mind helping. Helen even began teaching me how to cook and how to knit. Billy helped outside. He actually enjoyed the handy-work and working with his hands.
Through this time Billy and I had become close. We talked of everything. We held hands. We were best friends and I knew that I had fallen in love. Love. I found it. Even if he did not return it which I knew he did, I would love him anyways. It was a feeling that once again entrapped my heart and I would not release it for anything.
One night I couldn’t sleep so I wandered the house in the middle of the night and discovered that there was an attic. I silently pulled down and climbed the ladder to the discovered room and found it to be empty save for a lone box in the far corner. Dust and webs made a blanket over the box. I opened it with curiosity, not knowing exactly what I would find.
It was like finding a buried treasure. One I had read about in books.
But what I found was a treasure I had not expected.
I gasped. Taking a few steps back I tried to catch my breath. I recognized those items. How familiar they looked! A doll. A toy I had once cherished. Could it be?
I stepped back to search further. In the bottom of the box, under what seemed to be a perfectly intact, embroidered towel was a photograph. My father. I whispered. There was a woman and a child also in the photograph. The pictured woman was similar to the woman I had carried a picture of … my mother. This same woman had a slight resemblance of Helen, our current caretaker.
Finally it all came together. My mother’s name was Mary, a name that Helen had caught her breath on hearing. She had most likely met her new husband after leaving my father. Her new life had not turned out as well as she had hoped either. Karma seemed to pay her a visit for her wrong doing – abandoning her original family.
I ran out of the attic, photograph in hand and walked outside to the porch. I sat on the stairs and cried for what seemed like forever. This cannot be! I said aloud.
“Mary?” Helen approached with a shawl around her shoulders.
I continued to cry.
“Mary what is wrong? Did you have a nightmare?” She sat next to me.
“Have a nightmare?” I said and glared at her. “I’m in a nightmare.”
“What? Tell me what happened, Mary.” She remained calm – sure that I was just having a childish fit.
“Mary is not my name. And Helen isn’t yours!” I stood and walked down the few stairs onto the grass. “My name is Cora Grace. And your name is Mary!”
Startled and shocked Helen sat with her jaw dropped open.
“Cora…” she whispered.
“Mother,” I sobbed. “You left me. You left me and father. He died from the heartbreak! How could you?! You left us and started a new family.”
Helen cried too. “Cora. Please. I had to leave. You don’t understand. You are too young to understand.”
“I understand that you didn’t love us!”
“I did Cora. I truly did. I know I made mistakes. Please. Don’t you see that fate has brought us together? God has given us a new beginning?” She reached for me with both arms open.
I couldn’t. I couldn’t forgive her. I felt as if I was living through the abandonment once again but now older to understand what was going on.
“Please Cora. I am sorry. What I did was wrong. And my motives were immoral. Please don’t leave.”
My portmanteau sat two feet away. I had grabbed it from the bedroom on my way out.
“What’s going on?” Billy had heard the ruckus and stood at the door.
“Come on out Billy.” Helen motioned him out onto the porch where she sat.
She explained to Billy my discovery of the truth and of what was possibly to come. My leaving this new home; the home I had always dreamed of.
“Cora,” Bill walked up to me and hugged me. “Please don’t leave.”
I squeezed him tight. He seemed to be the only person that was true to me.
“Please give your mother a second chance. Sometimes we deserve a second chance right? And she did take us in – delivering our second chances.”
Billy was right. Isn’t that something that God would want us to do? Forgive? But how could I forgive my mother. What about my father’s heartbreak?
How can I forgive you for what you did to me and my father, your first husband and love?” I spoke with anger. I had held this anger in my whole life only to release its venom now.
Helen reached for me again. I allowed it this time. “By giving me a chance to make up for the time I’ve missed with you Cora. One day at a time.”
Unable to bear it any longer I ran into her arms. We cried together. Sometimes life isn’t what you wanted and sometimes people make decisions you will never truly understand. Forgiveness is what will help you to move on and it will keep your heart together.
Billy even joined in the hug. Together, the three of us, we were a new family. Officially.
Despite the long night and the events that had passed I was up at dawn waiting for the sun’s light to brighten this new day.
Careful not to wake Billy I tried to quietly open the closet doors to grab my portmanteau. It was time to open it and release what was inside.
“Good morning Cora.” Billy’s sleepy voice interrupted my actions.
“Good morning Billy.”
“What are you doing? Are you leaving?” He sat up straight when he noticed my hand on the suitcase.
“No I am not leaving. I am going to empty my portmanteau friend.” I smiled.
I had finally given 100% of my heart to the boy who was once a stranger but who then became my savior…and my new life along with my mother.
I set the beat up and torn case down on the ground and opened it.
“But …” He began.
“But … it is empty.” I finished for him.
“I began my journey with the emptiness in my life and my sorrows. I set off to find what I am missing in my life and I wanted to fill this case with what I can love deeply and cherish most. I havent known love in so many years.” I continued, “My portmanteau. With red leather skin. Bruised. Like me. Like I was. It was my faithful companion, my traveling bag. My suitcase. My whole life up until that 16th year when you and I met.” I said softly. “My life was empty. It was nothing. Now I have you. And I have found my mother. My life is new. I no longer need my portmanteau.”
Billy held both of my hands and kissed me lightly, so gently on my lips. We heard my mother stirring in the kitchen and the aroma of strong coffee invited us to begin this new day.
- Hi! My name is Connie. I love to write short stories, poems, novel drafts, blurbs, pretty much anything (even research papers). I've written my first novel titled "Me & Eryn Carlo" and editing is in the works! While the book is being groomed and tweaked I hope you enjoy the short stories I've posted here on My Writer's Block. Some are fun - some are quirky - some are just plain strange. Constructive criticism is highly valued. Thanks for stopping by. Your views mean so much to me!