We had stayed out later than we had planned. The evening just slipped away from us. We had left our sleepy little town to escape for one evening out in the big city, something neither of us had been able to do since Charlie was born, but our seven anniversary was a good enough excuse escape to our old stomping grounds. Dressed in our nicest clothes we hit up the urban nightlife filled with music, drinks, and some of the finest sushi either of us had ever had. A night much overdue.
When we returned to our quite little town, still not captured by the suburban sprawl that had consumed the towns closer to the city, the night out felt like it had been a mere dream. Perhaps it was the alcohol or our exhaustion but my mind had a hard time comprehending that the town we now called home existed in the same universe as the bustling city.
We were both city people but when Charlie was born we moved out of town, mostly because we needed the grandparents to watch over her while Wren and I maintained out busy professional lives. Wren didn’t mind being back home, but for me I never really felt like I fit in. The slow pace of life here didn’t suit me.
The car slowed down as I pulled up to the first light off the interstate. Wren rolled down her window and took a breath of the country air.
“Smells like home,” she said. I looked over at her and smiled. I still couldn’t believe how beautiful she looked. Wren wasn’t the kind of woman who dressed up much, but tonight in her blue dress and earrings she looked stunning. I’m sure she felt the same way about me.
“Yeah,” I said. I looked over at her,
“Let’s do another night out soon. Mom loves watching Charlie, it’ll be a good excuse for her to spend more time with her.” Her words a bit slurred.
“I agree, I miss the city.”
“Same. But it’s nice out here, nice and quite. Plus my parents are great to have around,” she looked at me. Even after seven years of marriage and four years of dating before that, I still found myself lost in her beautiful green eyes. “Remember,” she said with a hiccup, “remember when you used to find excuses to not see them. Some of them were so elaborate.”
I wish she didn’t bring that up. I was naive and we didn’t have a child. I’ve since come around to liking her parents. But she kept talking, and I let her. She was having a moment.
“My favorite excuse was when you said you hit that woman and split her in half. And then you proceeded to search for her legs while she talked non-stop with me on the phone. What a trip,” she laughed. “You never did tell me who you got to play her.”
Five years had passed since that incident and Wren still didn’t believe me. I couldn’t blame her, the whole thing felt like a dream to me. What she didn’t mention was how pissed off she was that day, how we were a hairpin trigger away a divorce. Luckily we stuck together and built a stronger relationship since then. I like to think that if something like that happened again, something out of the ordinary that once it’s over you aren’t sure if whether you had dreamt it or not, that we’d be able to stick through it. Instead of trying to convince her it was all true I said. “Yeah, I was a bit ridiculous back then.”
“I love you Todd,” she said to me with a smile.
“I love you too,” I smiled back.
Wren looked out the window again taking another breath. I looked at the light, still red. She turned to me.
“I feel like this is taking forever,” she said.
“Yeah,” I nodded, “it does seem longer than usual at this hour.” I picked up my phone to check the time, what I saw confused me. “Huh.” I said.
“What is it?”
“I-I think my phone’s glitched,” I showed her the notification on my lock screen. A notification from Credit Karma with an update on my credit score. That wasn’t anything surprising, the app sent me updates once a week on the weekends. What took me back was the time stamp on it: 7 yrs.
“I told you that you need to get a new phone,” Wren said.
“Yeah, I suppose so,” I sighed. The light turned green and we entered the town.
Wanting to get home as quickly as possible I took the route laid out by Google. It took us down streets I hardly drove on, winding through the city like a snake through a maze.
“Had that always been there?” Wren said, I looked over and saw she was pointing a 7-Eleven. I shrugged. Despite the low density of this town I didn’t know what sat on ever street corner.
I didn’t notice the changes until we turned on Main. Sure the same historic buildings lined the street, the same grain lifts that had been there since the railroads carved their way through the city center back in the 1800s remained, and the same county courthouse stood proud in the middle of the square, but what made me do a double take were the businesses that inhabited the buildings. Where the old time ice cream shop once called home a burger joint sat. Where the old funeral home used to lie a bar with patrons mingling around the outside stood. Nobody stayed out past ten in this town and it was well past midnight now. And where my favorite cafe used to be a Starbucks logo hung over the storefront.
“Did you get off at the right exit?” Wren asked.
“Exit 225, as always.”
Honestly, I wasn’t. Driving past the buildings I felt as if I had been gaslighted by my own town. It was as if the city were a masquerade party and everybody decided to swap masks while I took a step out to get fresh air. But I knew that was the court house, our court house was the only one in the whole region to have lions on its staircases, back when it used to double as a library way back when.
“I’m sure,” I said.
“Weird,” Wren said.
As we continued our winding trip through town I felt my fingers grip on the steering wheel out of instinct. Where pastures full of cows had been there now laid fully developed neighborhoods. Strip malls and gas stations sat at every street corner as if they had always been there. And the streets. The streets were freshly paved, no longer full of cracks and potholes that had been neglected for decades. All the streets here felt fresh and new. Not a crack on them.
“You sure we aren’t in Carlsonville?” She asked.
Wren checked my GPS. “I don’t recognize any of these streets.”
Hearing her words both gave me comfort and terrified me at the same time. Like hiding in a storm shelter during a tornado outbreak. I had felt momentary comfort while I knew the world I’d emerge into would no longer be the same as the one I left.
“Wait, is that Burlson Ranch?” She pointed out the window towards the one undeveloped piece of land that we had passed. In white text on a blue background the sign proudly displayed Burlson Ranch, Est. 1923.
“Todd, just what the hell’s going on?” Wren turned to me.
“I have no idea,” I said griping the steering wheel. I dreaded the thought of what we’d see when we got home. Would our baby be the same or would we arrive to a young girl who had spent seven years without knowing her own parents? I shuttered.
Orignally submitted to the writing prompt ”After a few minutes at a stoplight your partner turns to you, “Feels like this light is taking forever”. “It does seem to be taking a while” you reply. A quick look at your phone and you notice the calendar says several years has past.”