At sixty-five miles an hour, the drive home took Christina about twenty minutes. The clock read quarter to six; she would actually be home on time for once. Despite the fact that her last class ended at five-thirty, she rarely ever made it off campus before eight. Anything for the students, she always told anyone who commented on her ten-hour days. As a professor of philosophy and ethics, not only did she have papers upon papers to correct, but she was often held up in deep conversations with the more enthusiastic students or in long study sessions with the less receptive ones.
Christina quickly checked her make-up in the rearview mirror while at a stop sign. Tonight was date night with fiancé Drake, and with a three-year-old in the house, these nights were rare. Little Ashlynn would be at his parents’ for the night, so the two would have the house to themselves.
Thinking about the night to come made Christina think about the years gone by. Twenty years ago, she never would have guessed that she’d be a mother, fiancée, or even a professor. She always figured she’d be touring the world and experiencing different cultures. Despite that, she felt satisfied with her life. She had a beautiful daughter, found her soul mate, and secured a steady, well-paying job.
Satisfied with her appearance, Christina checks the road before pressing her foot to the gas pedal. Instead of accelerating, though, the car remained still. Looking down at the gauges on the dashboard, the woman realized that the car wasn’t even on. Wondering when it shut off, Christina turned the keys in the ignition to off, then attempted to restart the car, but to no avail; the car didn’t even crank, and no lights came on. This car is a 2008. I just drove it off the lot yesterday. The battery should not be dead already…
Taking a deep breath to keep herself in check, Christina fished through her purse for her Palm Centro. She pressed the power button to wake it, but like the car, it didn’t respond. It was at fifty percent when I left the office…! She wasn’t one for feeling superstitious, but she couldn’t brush off the feeling that something was off. There was a logical reason as to why both her car and phone were suddenly dead, she just couldn’t think of it at the moment.
Sighing, Christina got out of her car. It was a ten minutes to her house, and she would use the phone there to call AAA for a battery replacement, then she and Drake could have their romantic dinner.
As she walked up the driveway, though, she noticed Drake’s Silverado wasn’t in its spot. Where did he take off to? He knew I was on my way home… She brushed it off as she walked up the stone steps and unlocked the door, figuring that he went to the corner store for something quick.
Once inside the house, she froze. When she left that morning, the place was spotless, as she and Drake usually worked to keep it. However, now, it looked like a bunch of drunken college students lived here. Empty beer cans were scattered around the living room, on the dark cherry side tables, on top of the expensive entertainment center, and around the moss green carpet. Throw pillows decorated the stained floor, and the blanket that usually hung off the back of the sofa was bunched in the corner of the room. A pizza box sat on the granite counter in the kitchen, a fly keeping it company, and dirty dishes piled up on the dining table. The sight of the house was enough to shock Christina, but it was the smell that truly repulsed her.
For a second, she thought she entered the wrong house, despite the fact that her key worked on the door. She peeked her head out the front door to check the numbers on the side of the house, only to find that she was in the correct house. The next thought was that a burglar went through, though it wouldn’t make sense that they would simply dirty the place and leave all the electronics and valuables in place. The only other explanation she could think of was that Drake must have thrown a party for a few of the guys. She wasn’t sure how this kind of mess could accumulate after just one day, or how he got the day off from work, but it was the only logical idea.
She pulled out her PDA smartphone to send a text message to Drake, but remembered her battery was mysteriously dead. Shaking her head, she carefully stepped through the mess, down the hall, which was in decent condition, and into the office to grab her phone charger. She braced herself for whatever mess she would find inside, but was surprised to find it clean, although completely rearranged. There was a new computer on the desk, which looked way too thin to be real, all her textbooks had been removed from the shelf, and there was a new picture next to the monitor.
Intrigued most by the photograph, she picked it up and studied it for a long moment. It was taken at a distance, but she could tell the man in the center of it was Drake. On either side of him were two young girls. At first, the fair-haired brunette to his left looked like Ashlynn, but upon second glance, it made no sense; the girl was at least six or seven, far too old to be her three-year-old daughter. From what Christina could see in the small photo, though, the facial structure was accurate. The girl to Drake’s right looked more Ashlynn’s age, but her hair was darker and her skin was tanner. At the distance the picture was taken, it was hard to really see the face, but Christina knew it wasn’t Ashlynn. Drake himself looked different; his hair was more salt than pepper, the smile didn’t reach his eyes, and the wrinkles that should have just barely etched his face were like caverns in this photo. But her eyes kept moving back to the girls. Drake had no nieces that she knew of, and they looked far too much like him to be distant relatives.
That has to be Ashlynn, she decided, looking at the three-year-old. Her eyes must just have been watery from the smell of the living room and kitchen and she wasn’t seeing properly. But that left the question of the older one. Does he have another daughter that I don’t know about…?
After analyzing it for a few more minutes, Christina set the photograph back onto the desk and continued her search for a charge cord. She couldn’t convince herself that the tan dark-haired girl was Ashlynn. They are nieces that Drake just recently found out about.
There was a cord connected to the monitor, which seemed to be the entirety of the computer, and at first, Christina was thankful. As she tried to plug it into her phone, she was frustrated to find that it didn’t fit. She dug through the desk, looking for the correct cable, but nothing inside the drawers looked familiar. Everything seemed as if she were in a different house.
Finally, in the bottom drawer, she found a bunch of cords and cables, one of which fit her phone. She spent the next five minutes pondering the current situation as her phone charged enough to power on.
The day started just like any other day. Ashlynn woke at seven, and as Christina tended to her, Drake made breakfast and coffee. He left around eight for work, and Christina, by nine to drop Ashlynn off at his parents’ house. Her first class was at ten-thirty, but she arrived at the college an hour early for before-class office hours…
Christina was jolted from her thoughts when she heard the phone on the desk ring. The device, like everything else, was new and sleek. Though she didn’t recognize the number showing up on the caller ID, she answered it.
“Good evening. This is the office of Morgan and Gould, looking for Drake Voronov.”
I am, too, she thought, but her eyes widened as she recognized the name. “Is Drake being sued?”
“Sorry, ma’am. I am not at liberty to discuss this with anyone but Mr. Voronov.”
“He’s not home at the moment. I’m his fiancée, though.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am. Legally, that doesn’t change anything. Could you please have Mr. Voronov call us tomorrow between the hours of nine and six?”
Christina sighed. “Of course.” As she ended the call and set the phone in its cradle, she picked up her Centro. She pressed and held the power button, but the phone didn’t respond. She flipped it over and removed the battery cover. This thing is only two months old. How can it be having problems already? she silently complained as she slid the battery out, blew on it, and replaced it. She tried the battery button once more, with still the same result.
“Who are you?” a whispered voice asked.
Christina dropped the phone, startled, and immediately turned around to find a doe-eyed girl, five or six in age, standing in the doorway and holding a princess backpack. The woman stared at the child for a minute, trying to place where she’s seen this child before. “I’m Christina. Who are you?” she asked, using the same soft tone she did when speaking to any child.
“Breanne.” The girl was quite for a minute, but Christina could tell she was thinking. “Daddy told me not to talk to strangers.” The girl’s voice was so quiet, Christina almost couldn’t hear her.
Says the child who entered a stranger’s house. “Who is you daddy?” Christina asked.
Breanne pointed toward the computer, but when Christina turned her head, she realized the girl was pointing at the photograph. Christina’s brows furrowed. “Drake?”
The child nodded, and Christina shook her head. She looked back at the photograph, and focused on the younger girl. The tan-skinned, dark-haired child next to Drake was Breanna, without doubt. But was this really Drake’s daughter? She turned back to the child. The woman couldn’t deny the resemblance; she had his eyes, his nose, and his hair. “Who is your mommy?”
“Heather.” Breanne turned her focus to the floor, and Christina stared at her. She was burning with curiosity, but before she could ask another question, Breanne spoke again. “What are you doing in my house?”
“Your house?” Christina immediately regretted using such a harsh tone with an innocent child, but she couldn’t shake the thought of Drake having a child, possibly two, with another woman. She had been with Drake for the past ten years; had he been cheating on her the entire time? She shook her head quickly. “Did your mommy say that this was your house?”
Breanna’s face contorted in apparent confusion. “I live here,” she eventually replied with.
“How long have you lived here?”
The girl brought her hand up to her face, and placed a finger on her lip. “My whole life.”
That’s impossible, Christina thought. “How old are you?”
The child’s face lit up at this question. “I’m five!” she beamed. “That’s five away from ten.”
Well, she’s definitely an accountant’s child, Christina thought. Since Ashlynn was able to talk, Drake had introduced numbers into her life. It was no surprise he did the same with this other child. “Where is your Daddy?”
The child shrugged. “Work?”
“But it’s six o’clock. His office closes at five.” The woman said this more to herself than to the child, who shrugged. “Wait, it’s six o’clock. Why are you just now getting home from school?”
“I go to after-school.”
Christina nodded; it made sense.
“Do you know where Daddy is? He is always here when I get home.”
Christina wasn’t sure what the child meant by this statement. After he got out of work, Drake usually picked up Ashlynn from his parents’ house, or so she thought. Was staying late to correct papers and philosophize with students taking a toll on her marriage? The more she thought about it, the more she realized it would have been very easy for Drake to have a second family.
She shook her head. This didn’t seem like Drake at all; he never once complained about her long hours. Of course he didn’t. It gave him plenty of time for this. She snickered, forcing herself to feel anger rather than pain. Looking back at Breanne, she realized taking it out on this girl would be unfair.
Something clicked in Christina’s head. If Drake is here at six when the girl gets home, then he could easily take her to the mother’s house before she returned home, giving the girl the impression that she actually lived here. “Where do you sleep?”
“You want to see my room?” the girl asked, lighting up again.
This worried Christina, but she nodded regardless. The girl swiveled on her feet and ran down the hall. Ashlynn’s room…? the woman thought as she followed Breanne. Despite how the rest of the house had changed, Christina expected Ashlynn’s room to have remained untouched. Standing in the doorway, though, her mouth fell open. A bunk bed replaced the small toddler one. A dresser sat where the changing table once did, and a second one stood beside the closet where the rocking chair used to be. The only thing that was the same were the lavender walls and beige carpet. Even the curtains were different; instead of bright pink, they were swirled blue.
Christina had to grip the door jamb to keep from collapsing to her knees. Her daughter’s room was gone. How could Drake have done this, moved in his new family without warning? But more importantly, did he expect a three-year-old to sleep on a bunk bed? Breanne was sitting proudly on the bottom bunk, leaving the top for Ashlynn. Or the older girl, Christina remembered.
“Do you have a sister?”
Breanne nodded. “Ashlynn.”
Well, of course. “Do you have an older sister?”
The girl nodded.
“Where is she?”
The girl shrugged now. “I think she went to her friend’s house.”
One less child I have to scream in front of when Drake gets home, Christina thought. At this point, she didn’t even care who would have been witness to that. She was furious; how could Drake have cheated on her for all these years, and then suddenly move them into the house they shared, with no warning? Did he expect her to just get up and leave, knowing that she paid for half the house and half of the furniture inside?
As these thoughts ran through her head, she noticed a calendar on the wall beside the bunk bed. The month, February, was no surprise. But the numbers that came after the month were what blew her mind. This discovery distracting her thoughts, she crossed the room and took a closer look at it before turning to Breanne.
“Why is there a 2014 calendar on your wall?”
“So me and Sissy can see what day it is.”
“But it’s 2007. Why is this a 2014 calendar?” Why was this even printed? she wondered.
The girl looked at Christina, then at the calendar. Again, the woman could tell the girl was deep in thought. Finally, the child stood and pointed to Friday, April 11. “This is today.”
Christina shook her head. “No, it’s Wednesday,” she mumbled to herself, confused. Am I dreaming?
The child’s brows furrowed. “It’s Wednesday?”
Staring at the numbers beside the month name, Christina’s mind began to wander and she missed the girl’s question. If this was a dream, it would surely have made sense. She reaches down to pinch her arm; to her disappointment, she felt real pain.
“What are you doing?” Breanne asked.
Christina shook her head and shrugged. “I don’t know. Today is Wednesday, April 11, 2007. I don’t understand why this calendar says 2014, or why you think—”
She immediately shut her mouth as she heard the front door close.
“Daddy?” a voice called.
“Sissy!” Breanne cried as she ran out of the room. “Daddy is gone,” she relayed. Christina could hear the worry in her voice as she once again followed the girl. When she joined the girls in the living room, she again froze; it wasn’t the condition of the living room that startled her this time, instead it was the sheer resemblance between this older girl and Ashlynn. It was as if Christina was looking at a digitally-aged photograph of her daughter.
The girl stared Christina down with the same intensity. “Mommy?” Her voice was barely audible.
The tiny, desperate plea tugged at Christina’s heart, but she didn’t know why. This girl, appearing to be at least ten or eleven, was far too old. As their eyes locked, though, both started to cry. Christina, because despite the lack of logic, things were clicking. If this really was 2014, then Ashlynn would, in fact, be ten years old. Just as there was no denying the fact that Breanne had Drake’s eyes, there was no denying that this older girl was indeed Ashlynn. The tears streamed down her face as she realized about the fact that she somehow missed seven years of her daughter’s life, and her daughter had been without a mother each and every day.
She took the few steps to close the gap between them, and wrapped her arms around her ten-year-old daughter. Though she still didn’t understand how it happened, she was aware of the current situation, even if she didn’t entirely believe it.
Christina watched Breanne as she just stood, a few feet away, watching. The girl looked as if she didn’t know what to do. Ashlynn broke down, sobbing, in her mother’s arms, and Christina pulled the girl closer.
“Where did you go, Mommy?” Ashlynn asked through sobs.
Wishing she knew the answer to the question, Christina opened her mouth to speak, but when she heard the sound of a car pulling into the driveway, she closed it again. Breanne ran to the window and pulled the curtain back to reveal Drake slowly climbing out of his Silverado. Christina couldn’t help but notice how sluggishly the once-agile man moved. He looked ancient, even from this distance, though he was a few years younger than her. Not anymore, she realized. Seven years would make him forty-three now.
When he got to the door, Breanne latched onto him like a leech, wrapping her little arms around him the best that she could. His head down, he leaned over and kissed her hair. Christina could hear the clicking of his bones. The past seven years have not been good to him.
Ashlynn turned her head to watch her father, but she didn’t let go of her mother. Christina guessed it was out of fear of losing her again.
When Drake straightened his body, he noticed her; their eyes locked, and she felt as if she couldn’t breathe. It had only been hours for her, but she knew it had been years for him. She watched as the expressions on his face changed like a fiber-optic light. First was shock, which morphed into either pain or sadness. Next came the anger, but it quickly moved to confusion, then disbelief. He rubbed his eyes, but when he lowered his hands, she was still there. After it all, it was the look of confusion that remained.
She nodded, but still didn’t move. She wanted to hug him, but she was afraid to touch him. Her disappearance clearly hasn’t been easy for him, and he obviously moved on. Breanna was proof of that, and judging by her age, it didn’t take him long to move on.
“Where have you been?” He took a step closer to her, staring at her. “Why haven’t you aged a day?” he breathed. He sounded as if he didn’t believe she really existed here in this moment.
Christina pulled her brows together in regret. “I wish I knew,” was all she could say to either question.
“Why did you leave?”
She looked away; she hated not having answers, and she was afraid he wouldn’t believe her.
“It’s been seven years, Christina.”
“To the date,” she agreed, still avoiding eye contact. She took a deep breath, and looked back into his eyes. “I don’t know what happened, Drake. I was driving home from school, and when I stopped at the sign at Bedford Street and Harpers Lane, my car stalled. It wouldn’t even crank. I tried to call AAA from my phone, but it was dead. So I walked home and found this,” she says, holding her arms out to put the disastrous state of the house on display.
“When your fiancée of ten years suddenly disappears without a goddamn trace, it’s hard to find the energy to do anything,” he rebutted defensively.
“Drake, I’m sorry,” she says, but then looks down at Breanne. “You found the energy for that, though,” she states quietly, looking back at Drake.
“For the first year, I thought that something happened to you, something bad. I feared the worst.” He paused for a minute. “I spent many nights at the bar. That’s where I met Heather, the mother. At first, all I talked about was you. She had heard what happened. It was all over the news. Everyone was looking for you, trying to track your phone. They said that even if it was off, they’d still be able to get a GPS signal. You’d have to remove the battery for them to not be able to track it. But when they searched literally everywhere and found nothing, I assumed you had figured that out and removed the battery. I thought you didn’t want to be found.”
Christina’s heart felt heavy. “Why would you think that?” she whispered, wondering how Drake could even doubt her love for him. She began to rethink the late nights Monday through Friday.
Drake didn’t answer for a long while. He looked down at his daughters. Breanne still clung to him, while Ashlynn hung to her mother. He patted both heads. “Why don’t you girls go to your room?”
Ashlynn looked up at Christina. “But—” she started.
“I’m not going anywhere, darling girl. Listen to your father,” she interrupted softly.
The child unwillingly let go of her mother, and slumped down the hall with her younger sister.
“When I first met you, you had plans,” Drake explained once the girls were out of sight. He knew they would be at the door, so he kept his voice low. “You wanted to tour Europe, Asia, Africa, South America. You wanted to live life to the fullest, and you didn’t think you could do that with a family. You were studying the different philosophies and cultures of the world, and I could see you had passion for it.”
Christina opened her mouth to interject, but Drake held up his hand. “So when you left, I thought you went to live out your dream. Eventually, I stopped looking for you. If you really wanted to do that, then who was I to stop you?”
She couldn’t decide if the tone of his voice was accusatory or sympathetic; was he blaming her for leaving, or telling her that he wanted her to follow her dreams? “I would never have willingly left neither you nor Ashlynn. I had that dream in college, when I was twenty and naïve. I didn’t realize how fulfilling being a mother and wife could be. I didn’t realize how much I could love another human being until I met you. And I realized that sharing my ideas and knowledge with other naïve twenty-year-olds was far more productive than just wandering the earth aimlessly.”
Drake looked away. “Then where did you go? You couldn’t have just disappeared into thin air.”
Christina shrugged. “Drake, I don’t know. I told you, I was driving home from work and my car stalled at the stop sign.” She looked away. “So where is this Heather now?”
“She’s a nurse. Works nights.” Drake looked around. “She gave up trying to clean. The hospital overworks her, and she’s lost the energy to clean.” He raised an eyebrow and shook his head. “I think I drained the life out of her. Though she wasn’t much of a clean freak to begin with, unlike us.”
Christina closed her eyes and breathed deep. He spoke of this woman as if he knew her deeply, which would make sense since he had spent the past six years with her. The thought of Drake spending his life with another woman still killed her, even given what she now knew.
“I know this is no place to raise two small children, but…” His voice trailed off at the end, cutting his sentence short.
Silence fell over them for a long moment, neither knowing what to really say. “Why would Morgan and Gould call you?”
Drake sighed heavily. “I lost my job years ago, and have been working odd jobs here and there. They don’t cover bills, though. Heather’s income isn’t enough either. We were living a cushy life here.”
Christina understood, so she didn’t press any further. She began to wonder if her cell phone would have even been in service if she had gotten it to turn on. It must be so horribly outdated by now, too, she realized.
Another silence fell over them, though much shorter than the last. “Let’s just go get my car out of the middle of the street,” she eventually said, not being able to find anything else to say.
He nodded, and made a quick stop at the girl’s room as Christina waited by the door. “Ash, watch your sister for a minute. We’re going—” he started, but Ashlynn’s voice cried over his.
“Don’t leave again!”
“We’re just going to get Mommy’s car, then we will be right back.” His voice was calm and reassuring. “Fifteen minutes, okay?”
Ashlynn remained silent. Christina hated leaving the girl again, but this was something that needed to be done. Besides, she couldn’t just sit and stare at this mess any longer, knowing this was a mess the man that should have been her husband had made with another woman. How could she just return to this life as if nothing happened?
Drake returned, keys in his hand. Christina followed him to his truck, but before he climbed into the driver’s seat, he grabbed a gas can from the garage. From the way he carried it, Christina could tell it was more than half-full.
“I don’t think I ran out of gas,” she explained as he started his truck. “When I turned the key, the car didn’t make a sound and no lights came on. Plus, the gas tank was well over half a tank when I left campus.”
“Just to be safe,” he said as he pulled out of the driveway and headed towards the aforementioned intersection. He parked his car on the side of the road in front of the car and got out. “I don’t even know why you picked that car,” he muttered as he poured the entirety of the gas can into the car.
“I liked the sporty looks,” she quietly answered as he dug through the small space behind his seat for the jumper cables. He attached them to both vehicles, then climbed back into his truck. He started it as Christina slid into her driver’s seat. Knowing she had to wait a few minutes before starting her car, she stared at the steering wheel. She remembered that Drake had tried to persuade her into buying a different car. “This one just has a bad vibe,” he had said.
But she didn’t believe in metaphysical nonsense like that; it was a car, an inanimate object, and that’s all it was to her. She had to admit that the car was the blackest on the lot, but she loved it for that. She couldn’t understand why Drake hated it.
When she felt like enough time had passed, she started the car. She got out to unhook the cables from her battery and shut the hood, but realized neither vehicle was running. She looked to Drake for an explanation, but he looked just as dumbfounded.
Eyeing the car, he shook his head. “I guess we call AAA, then.”
Christina guessed that his parents still paid for that, which was the only reason he was still a member.
“I told you that car was bad mojo.”
Christina shook her head. She refused to believe in any of that. “It’s not the car. It was probably just a bad battery.” She wondered if that even made sense.
They spent the rest of the walk in silence until they got back to the house. As she followed Drake up the steps, Christina could hear a loud beat coming from the walls. He opened the door, but stopped moving. Music, a sound she could only describe as metal against metal accompanied by the moans and groans of the singer, washed over her, followed by the strong scent of marijuana.
“Dad?” a voiced called from inside the living room. Drake took a couple steps inside, and Christina pushed herself in to see what paralyzed him.
She heard hurried footsteps down the hall, but she couldn’t take her eyes off the sight on the couch: Ashlynn, again many years older than what she was just moments ago. Someone tackled into Drake beside her. She turned her head to look, only to find Breanne, no younger than ten years old.