By Ekta R. Garg
Prompt: They traveled the countryside in colorful horse-drawn carriages.
Cora heaved a huge sigh as she set the table for lunch. Her husband would be home any minute, and she wanted to make sure she was ready. The sooner she gave him his meal, the sooner he’d finish and go back to the office.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this, she thought for the tenth time since she woke up that morning. She went to the kitchen and finished assembling sandwiches. She’d really wanted a salad for lunch, but salads took longer to eat. Longer to eat meant more time she’d have to sit across from Tom and wish with every inch of herself that she could just end it all.
Not end her life. No, Cora was too practical for that. She wanted her marriage to end.
When the kids left home to forge their own lives in different places, Cora thought she and Tom could jumpstart their relationship. It seemed doable at first too. They tried date nights and weekend trips, getting back in touch with friends they hadn’t contacted for years and board games. The conversations on date nights proceeded in stilted, halting tones. The weekend trips started to resemble solo vacations where they carpooled. Friends had moved or seemed happier than ever as couples, and it turned out that board games were much more fun in groups. With the kids, especially.
Now Cora dragged herself from one day to the next. Every morning she woke up wondering whether today would be the day she’d ask Tom for a separation. Every night she went to bed wondering why she hadn’t done it.
The phone rang, breaking her train of thought.
“Oh, hi, Pam. I’ll be over there as soon as Tom and I are done with lunch.”
“No problem,” Pam said. “Now or later, the books’ll get sorted eventually.”
Cora paused at the glum tone of her friend’s voice. “Pam? Are you okay?”
The peddler family groups traveled the countryside in colorful horse-drawn carriages. They came through the small town every other year. When she and Pam were kids, they’d kept track of when the higglers would appear in a special notebook they shared. Every time the higglers stopped in their town, Cora and Pam would race to the carriages and vie with the other kids to see the wares set out. The girls would pick one thing each and then pool their money for a purchase to share.
People saw them as mostly harmless. The higglers were unfailingly polite, helpful, and eager to share their newest carvings or handmade toys. They wore clothes that reminded Cora of the illustrations in her copy of Little House on the Prairie. Their speech, too, sounded more formal than how most people spoke.
In the off years, when the higglers didn’t come, Cora and Pam spent their time talking about the adventures the peddlers must be having. After reading H.G. Wells in school, the girls couldn’t stop thinking that surely the higglers must have time traveled to their small Pennsylvania town from the past. What else could possibly explain their clothes and the fact that they handmade almost everything?
As they became teenagers, the girls stopped talking so much about the higglers. They did mention them from time to time, when they felt nostalgic at slumber parties in the early-morning hours. By then there were so many other things to occupy their time and attention. After-school jobs. College. Boys.
She took a deep breath. “Yeah, sorry. Just thinking about when we were kids. Do you remember how we used to talk about running away with them?”
Despite her sadness earlier, Pam laughed. “Yeah. Made so much more sense than becoming a certified adult.”
“Don’t you mean certifiable?”
This time both of them laughed, Cora’s fading before Pam’s voice did.
“Sometimes I wish we could, though,” she said.
“What? Run away?”
“Like we’re ten years old again? Do you remember what happened that time?”
“Hey, we got as far as the library, didn’t we?”
Pam chuckled. “I guess. Speaking of which, you said you’d be here after lunch. Do you have an ETA for me?”
They spoke for a few more minutes about library matters then hung up. Cora couldn’t shake the idea, though. She remembered the colorful ribbons on the edges of the carriages, the bells on the harnesses of the horses. As if it were always Christmas.
She remembered the zip of excitement the sound gave her.
An idea began to creep across her brain, and almost at the same time she put it into action. She powerwalked into her bedroom and began packing a bag. A small rational voice inside her head argued as loud as it could. She threw her purse into the bag and told the rational voice to shut up.
She needed a change. The higglers wouldn’t come back the following year. It had to be now or never.
Dashing a note off to Tom that he could find dressing in the fridge for his salad and that she’d be back…sometime, she ran out the door and to the fair grounds. With every step, she imagined she could her the harnesses jingling with the sounds of a better, brighter future. One with ribbons streaming across it.