Conditional Freedom by Virginia Hartman
The best thing about the running stroller is that if your hands leave the handlebar at any time, if the maternal instinct to grip tight leaves you for just a second, you have a backup in the clever leash that hangs about your wrist and so even if you let go, if you forget yourself, forget your motherly duties, you’re saved, aren’t you, because the stroller magically rolls back, no harm done, no rolling out into traffic and certainly no destabilization, no spilling of precious cargo, no traumatic brain injury to a soft, still-growing skull, because the large wheels, the whole body design, and the tri-corner chassis prevents any such maternal neglect, even if unintended.
Too bad plane travel affords only the carrying of the collapsible kind of stroller. Sturdy in its way, but smaller of wheel and not meant for the high speed of the mother desperate to run off the frustrations of young motherhood, the early morning waking, the cooped-upness, the sense that perpetual motion is the only antidote to fussiness. And so the baby sits up, content, in a stroller not build for speed, but enjoying the speed regardless, enjoying even the bumpity bump bump of the uneven shoulder as they, child and mother, approach the bridge, running, running free in the warm wind, running toward the salt sea that streams under the bridge between barrier islands, free, both of them, of the usual barriers of crib, of walls, of others asleep in defiance of their waking, she pushing the not-so-stable stroller, but who cares, pushing with all her might on this uneven road, feeling better now, finally, reaching what, if not the runner’s high might at least be felt as a runner’s relief, okay, the running stroller would be easier to push, okay, there’s no safety leash around her wrist, okay, she’s not running unfettered by any means, but the sweat and the wind and the silence from below, where he sits, the fussiness relieved, is very much like freedom as long as she can count freedom in degrees.
And then it is over.
The stroller hits something.
There is a divit in the road, a crack she did not see, that the small front wheels find and fix themselves to and following the laws of physics, when the top of a body moving at six miles per hour meets the bottom of the same body moving zero miles per hour, the moving part (stroller handle) must continue forward over the non-moving part (wheels) with a force equal to or greater than those same six miles per hour, which translates into a g-force that will remain uncalculated, which translates into softish forming forehead bone hitting rutted pavement at approximately 6 miles per hour or the aforesaid uncalculated g-force.
There is a wail perhaps greater than all the wails before, and the run is over, and the maternal instinct returns, and right there on the approach to the bridge the stroller is set right and the baby unbuckled and held and rocked and soothed and comforted until he is calm and can be put back in, buckles snapped, and the stroller walked back to the room with the walls and the crib and the sleeping people, now beginning to stir.
There is not even a bruise. She does not mention the fall.
And yet. Something has changed.
© Virginia Hartman, 2016
Virginia Hartman’s fiction has appeared in The Hudson Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Potomac Review, and elsewhere. She’s a fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and in her forthcoming novel Elemental, everyone is lost is in the swamp. She’s taught writing at American University, George Washington University, and the Writer’s Center.
Conditional Freedom was read by Kristin Calgaro for the Short & Sweet Flash Fiction edition on 3rd August 2016