For years I couldn’t remember what had happened to me that night. All I knew was that three hours of my life were gone, unaccounted for in any way that made sense. Such a tiny sliver of time—yet it was enough to rip my life apart. Nothing would ever be the same. Least of all me.
The search for those lost hours changed me. Finding them nearly killed me. Even now, there are times when I lie awake in the dark heart of night and wish to hell I’d left it all alone.
Except for Ethan. I could never regret anything about him.
I remember well enough how that night started off. If I’d stayed home where I belonged I wouldn’t be telling this story now.
The crowd in the Holiday Inn lounge was just getting loose. The band had finally found a tune even the broken-hearted could dance to, and both dancers and dance floor were taking on that glow too much alcohol will give them. But I was out of place in that happy community of the drunk and the unattached, and I knew it.
“I gotta get back to the kids, Sherry. It’s close to midnight.”
“The kids are fine,” my drunk, unattached friend responded. “You’ve hardly been out of that house for weeks. Ronnie don’t never take you nowhere. Every once in a while even the Mom of the Year deserves some down time, don’t you think?”
“Who you calling Mom of the Year?” With three kids below the age of eight, I stayed home full-time. I didn’t have a choice if everyone was going to stay sane, including me.
I frowned at my footloose friend. She’d dragged me out here under pretense of hitting the mall, which was long since closed. I didn’t make a practice of lying to my husband.
“Oh, for chrissake, Asia, will you please just relax for five minutes?” Sherry tilted her chin and blew the smoke from her cigarette over her head in disgust. “We have been sitting here all damn night buying our own drinks and now that things are looking up, you want to go home.”
Sherry thought I was crazy for sticking it out with someone whose idea of excitement was a beer so cold it made him shiver. She was a free bird and thought I should be one, too. But, then, Sherry’d been married three times and her only child was an overfed Cocker spaniel.
Sherry’s attention was suddenly snagged by a tall specimen at the bar with the run-to-fat look of a former high school football star. “Well, hello there, handsome. Why don’t you just come on over here and have a sit?”
The words were lost on Mister Right—the bar was a good twenty feet away across a choppy sea of tables and drinkers—but he got the message all right. He smiled cagily in return.
Sherry and I had run together since we were both new to the course, so I recognized the signs. She’d notice Mister Right’s beer belly and receding hairline tomorrow morning; right now all she could see was his broad shoulders and the bulge in his jeans. It was a fair trade-off, though, since he wasn’t noticing her crow’s feet and sagging butt at this moment either.
I shook my head and reached for my jacket. “I’m outta here, girl. If I stay I’m just gonna cramp your style.”
Sherry sighed. “Ronnie don’t know how good he has it with you, you know that? You are just nothing but an angel.”
“Yeah, right. Running home right now to polish the old halo. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
Outside the chill of late October had laid a damp hint of frosts to come on the pickups in the motel lot. I could see my breath in the still air as I shrugged into my jacket. Until that night I’d always liked the change in the weather that meant winter was coming on. But that was before. I‘ve come to dread it since then.
One thing you need to know right up front. I wasn’t drunk when I left the bar that night. My head was clear when I got in my old Ford pickup and turned out onto the highway. I didn’t so much as wobble in my lane all the way home. I paid the babysitter and looked in on the kids (all sleeping as deep as wintering bears). I took the sitter home, and I remember thinking that I’d have trouble getting to sleep that night. I was that wide awake.
That’s why I couldn’t explain what happened next—not to my husband, not to Sherry, not to the police or the counselors or the doctors. I could explain it least of all to myself. Oh, I could blame myself, all right. But I couldn’t find any reason in this world why one minute I could be driving along Deerhorn Road not a mile from my house and three hours later be waking up in my pickup on the side of the road.
I opened my eyes, and for a long baffling minute I couldn’t see anything at all. In the moonless midnight dark, all I could see was the dusty shadow of the truck’s dash hanging just above my face. The view through the windshield revealed only a starlit sky and the ragged outline of a stand of pine framing the narrow road.
I lifted my head from the sticky vinyl of the seat and sat up. Razor-sharp pain ripped like a saw blade from my forehead to the back of my skull and tore the air out of my lungs. The inside of that Ford was spinning like a carnival ride, and I thought for a good thirty seconds that I would blow the contents of my stomach all over the front seat.
When the steering wheel and the glove compartment had settled back into their usual places, my first thought was that I’d had one Lemon Drop too many. But I hadn’t had enough vodka to justify the pounding inside my head. In fact, I wasn’t sure there was that much vodka available outside Moscow. No, and I hadn’t had nearly enough of it to make me pass out in the middle of the road practically within sight of home.
I listened for a clue as to what might have left me sitting there, the keys dangling from an ignition turned to OFF, but the road was as quiet as it was dark. In the woods, a mockingbird protested being awakened out of a sound sleep. In the weed-choked ditches on either side of the road, a few late-season crickets still trilled. In my chest, my heart thumped at something more than the normal, healthy rate for a 28-year-old woman of slender build and athletic inclination.
It took me quite a while to recognize that unfamiliar emotion welling up into my throat was fear.
“Now, think, girl, think,” I said out loud, hands gripping the steering wheel like it was the last railing on the Titanic. “I went home. I checked on the kids. I took Heather home.”
I remembered leaving the babysitter’s house, turning out of the driveway onto the road, slowing down to take the curve just before the Dry Run Bridge. I’d been listening to the radio—Stevie Ray or somebody—then . . . I’d lost the signal. After that, it was if my mind had switched off with the radio. I couldn’t remember anything else, and thinking about it was making my head want to twist off my neck.
All right. Shit. I sat up straight, clicked the seat belt and turned the ignition key. The truck started right up—no warning lights, gas tank almost full. I shook my head—a mistake that cost me a second of dizzy pain—then I put the truck in gear and got back on the road.
I had almost convinced myself my little nap could be safely shrugged off when I thought to check the clock on the dash. But the numbers made no sense. I was suddenly shaking so hard I had to grab the steering wheel again to keep my arms from flailing around the vehicle.
“That can’t be right!” I whispered.
The clock read 4:32. I didn’t want to believe it. I wanted to believe something had screwed up the Ford’s electrical system; that the clock had stopped yesterday, and I hadn’t noticed it; that the kids had been playing in the truck and changed it on me. Anything was better than believing what I saw. Because if that damn clock was right, I’d been passed out for three hours on Deerhorn Road, and Ronnie had been home for at least ten minutes.
Oh, God, I’m dead. I could hear my breath, short and ragged, whistling in and out of my throat. It’s fucking four-thirty and I’m dead.
I stomped on the gas, pushing the aging vehicle up to a reckless 65 on the unbanked road, but I knew it wouldn’t do much good now. I was going to walk in with no possible explanation for where I’d been, and Ronnie and I would be yelling about it for hours. First it would be about where I’d been, then it would be about my crazy friends, then it would be about the money I’d spent and why I’d left the kids and how much I’d drunk and how many guys I’d slept with and on and on.
I came up on the last bend before the house, and I was dreading the whole scene so much I was within a cat’s hair of turning the truck around to head for the Kentucky line. I even slowed down, but I didn’t stop. Ronnie would be easy to leave. It had been a mistake of my wild and wicked youth to marry him in the first place. The kids, though—my sweet, funny, bright, loving children—they were another story. I would never have left them behind, no matter how big an idiot their father was.
But, you see, I’d already done it without even thinking about it. I’d left my kids behind, sleeping peacefully in their beds, believing I would be back in a minute or two. I’d left Benjamin surrounded by Spiderman in his own room and little Micah cuddled up with Samantha in her room full of pink frou-frou, believing they would be there, safe and sound and wrapped in their sweet dreams, when I got back. I didn’t know it would be more than three hours before I got back to them—how could I have known?
I turned that last bend and, oh, Jesus, even now I want to scream. I can still see the house in flames, black smoke rising through the leaping red and orange, the trees, the road, the cars, the fire trucks reflecting the fire back like the surface of a burning lake. My mind wouldn’t accept what I was seeing, couldn’t hold the concept of my house, my home, my BABIES on fire. I’ve had years to accept it, a thousand nights soaked with sweat and tears to put out those flames. And still part of me believes I can come around that curve and see my house and my life as it had been, as it should have been. Safe and quiet. Unremarkable. Whole.
The truck careened up into the yard by itself somehow; I know I wasn’t driving it anymore. I threw myself out of the driver’s seat and stumbled toward the burning house, though what was left of my rational mind was shrieking at me that it was too late, too damn late. Someone tackled me and trapped me in a bear hug. To this day I don’t know who it was, and I thought I knew all the boys on the volunteer squad.
“You can’t go in there, Asia,” his voice kept repeating. “There’s nothing you can do.”
I fought him. I struggled like I would kill him if he didn’t let me go. “My kids are in there!” I screamed, my heart shattering, my soul shredding. “They’re in there!”
“They’re gone, Asia. There’s nothing we can do. They’re gone.” He held on until I finally slumped to the ground in shock, no fight left in me, no hope left in me, nothing left in me but horror and guilt and wrenching pain. I guess we stayed like that on the cold ground, the heat from the flames washing over our heads, until Ronnie came over and pulled me to my feet.
His face was marked with soot and tears and a kind of furious misery I never want to see on a human face again in my life. “Where were you, Asia?” His hands twisted and tightened on my arms. “They’re dead! Our babies are DEAD! Where the hell were you?”
I know Ronnie would have hit me, if the sheriff hadn’t pulled him off me. He might even have killed me in that moment. And who could blame him? I know I didn’t. For once, he had a right to be out of control. He had gone to work, leaving me to care for the only thing that meant anything to either of us. Now they were gone, and I had no explanation. I had no excuse. What happened was my fault; even I believed it.
It was three years before I stopped wishing Ronnie had done what he wanted so badly to do that night. It was a long time after that before I found any reason beyond sheer apathy to keep from putting a .45 to my head and leaving this world behind.
Lucky for me, apathy is a bigger survival mechanism than most people think.
~*~ ~*~ ~*~
Target Word Count: 115,000
Flavor: Science Fiction Suspence Romance
Status: Market Draft
Author: Donna S. Frelick's bio can be found on the Author page.
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