Things had been rocky lately. I knew the first year of marriage was supposed to be one of the hardest, but no one had said there’d be days where I felt like I was waking up next to a stranger. I’d stare at his face, still lined with tension even in his sleep, and I’d wonder who he was and what he was doing in my bed. Sometimes he’d wake up and see me watching me and he’d turn over, tugging the blankets up high.
We hadn’t lived together before marriage, which had been a big mistake I realized later, and the growing pains associated with learning each other’s routines and habits were taking a toll. It wasn’t that we fought much, we rarely actually raised our voices to one another, it was just a series of perceived slights and mild annoyances that simmered and stewed. He didn’t like that I listened to music while I got ready in the mornings, I didn’t like that he left his dirty clothes all over our bedroom, he got annoyed with the way I’d mumble to myself while I was working on something, I got annoyed with how he’d leave lights on when he left a room.
The list went on and was compounded by inconsistent work schedules. My freelance graphic design business meant I’d have ridiculously long hours one week and none the next, his job as an EMT required on call periods and occasional overtime, and some days we’d barely get an hour to spend together before bed. Somehow, it had seemed easier to find “us” time when we were just dating.
Still, I loved him and wanted to turn the stranger I sometimes saw back into the man I’d married. We sat down and tried to work out date nights, but they inevitably fell through to sudden deadlines or his work phone going off. We tried waking up earlier to talk in the morning, but that just resulted in both of us being tired and grumpy. We even tried to set specific times to text each other cute little messages throughout the day, but those were quickly forgotten when we became busy and distracted.
We handled the strain differently. Andrew became sullen and distant, frustrated with his inability to figure out a solution. I was more emotional, crying for hours at a time while alone in our apartment, and I’d unintentionally hound him when he got home, asking how we could fix things, demanding we both do things better even if I didn’t know how.
He left the apartment to “clear his head” more than once after saying that he didn’t know what I wanted from him, which left me feeling more raw, more hurt, more distant. I felt like we were both desperately trying to hold on to each other while a chasm was opening up between us.
“What do I do, Mom?” I cried over the phone after one such departure.
“First, you have to try and calm down.” She said gently.
I inhaled, deep and slow, and tried to stop the steady flow of tears. “I just don’t know how to make it better.”
“You’re sure you want to?”
“Of course!” I said, my temper flaring at the implication I might want my marriage to fail.
“Then it’s time to shit or get off the pot, kid.” She said.
“You want it to work, then you make it work. Have you taken any time to yourselves since your honeymoon?”
“No, we’ve had to work-”
“Listen, honey, I love you and Andrew and I want you two to be happy, but if you keep making excuses instead of making an effort, a real effort, it’s not going to work. Saying you want this or that is easy, but following through? Not so much. There’s always going to be a reason not to do something, but if it matters, you’ll find a way.”
I was quiet, fighting my knee jerk reaction to snap back defensively.
“Yeah?” I said snippily.
“Be mad at me all you want, that’s fine, but when you’re done being mad, think about what I said. Refiguring your priorities is never easy, kiddo, but I have faith you guys’ll figure it out.”
I laid awake in bed that night, mulling over Mom’s blunt advice. It hurt to think that she was right, that all of our “attempts” to fix things had just been so many words used as a bandaid to temporarily cover up our problems without actually addressing them. When Andrew came to bed, I curled up against his side and was relieved when he put an arm around me.
“I want to go away.”
“What?” He sounded surprised and sat up halfway. “No, separation won’t help!”
“No, I mean, together. Like a vacation.”
I could feel him looking at me in the dark. “Where?”
“I don’t know, maybe somewhere out east? Get a hotel, spend our days on the beach. Just get away from the city.”
“I have work…”
“Excuses.” I said and I didn’t mind for one minute that I sounded like my mother. The more I talked, the more certain I was that this was exactly what we needed. “You have PTO, I can postpone my projects by a few days. Whatever we’ve been trying isn’t working; we have to do something different.”
“Fine, ok, if it’s what you really want, but it’ll have to be a couple weeks out. I need to get approval first.”
I hugged him tightly and he gave me a squeeze and I allowed myself to start getting excited.
A month and a half later, we’d prepared a four day getaway to a beachfront hotel with plans to horseback ride, scuba dive, and rekindle our smoldering spark. Although it certainly wasn’t perfect, the weeks leading up to our mini vacation were better. We talked more, shared ideas of what activities we could get up to, and planned together. It was the closest I’d felt to Andrew in a long time.
I spent the day of our departure packing for both of us while Andrew worked his last shift. I was restless and eager to go and I must have folded our clothes a hundred times over while watching the clock. When 4:30 hit, I switched to watching the window for Andrew’s Jeep. He pulled in the parking lot a few minutes later and I rushed out, a suitcase in either hand.
We left in good spirits, an oldies station playing on the radio and my fingers twirling through the back of Andrew’s hair while we sang along.
But our trip from the west coast of Florida to the southeast was a long one and there wasn’t much in the middle to keep our attention. Once we’d cleared the city, it became long stretches of flat scrubland and cows broken up by the occasional small town. Halfway through our five hour drive, with the sun fast setting in our rearview mirror, I started to nod off while Andrew tapped the steering wheel along to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”.
When I woke up an hour later, it was pitch black, the car was stopped on the side of the road, and Andrew was gone.
“Andy?” I said groggily.
I unbuckled my seatbelt and cupped my hands around my eyes to look out my window, trying to see if he’d maybe stepped out to relieve himself, but it was a wasted effort. Being so far out into the Florida sticks on some state road, there weren’t any sources of light to see by other than the moon, which showed little more than dark shadows.
I felt around the ignition for the key, hoping to use the headlights to illuminate the road, but came away empty handed. I continued to feel around the driver’s side of the car, but had similar luck. I reached into the backseat and fished around until I found my purse, where my phone was still in the side pocket. Using the screen’s illumination, I flashed it around the car. Andrew’s wallet and phone were still in the center console, but there was no sign of the keys.
“Frick on a stick.” I muttered. Andrew had probably taken them with him when he got out out of habit.
I popped open my door just slightly and called softly out into the darkness.
A chorus of crickets responded.
I opened the door a bit wider and leaned out slightly for a better look around. I expected to see him jogging back to the car with his goofy smile and an apology, but as the seconds ticked by with no Andrew, a knot started to tie itself in my gut.
“Andrew?” I called a bit more loudly.
When I got no answer, I stepped out and held my phone up to shine it while I spun in a small circle. Empty road, empty flat land stretching out on either side, and back around to empty car.
“Andrew?” I screamed.
I paced around the jeep for a few minutes, hoping, praying, that my husband would make an appearance and laugh at me for my worry. The single knot in my stomach turned into two and then three, multiplying until my insides were twisted with thick, heavy fear.
“Andrew!” I gave him one last chance to answer, to come back, to do something that would let me know where he was, but it went unheeded.
“911, what is your emergency?”
“My husband is missing!” I said.
“How long has he been missing?”
“I don’t know, I was napping and I woke up and he was gone!”
“From the car. We were driving across state and I fell asleep and when I woke up, he was gone. I’m worried he fell into a swale or something and is hurt! Please send someone, it’s dark and I can’t see much of anything!”
“Ok, ma’am, can you tell me where you are?”
“Uh, eastbound on 70?”
“I need something more specific. Are there any signs?”
I looked around desperately. “Yeah, a little bit back, hold on.”
I jogged back down the road to the sign and held my phone up to it so I could read it.
“The sign says Passit, I think?” I’d never heard of the town, but it didn’t surprise me. Florida had no shortage of little backwater communities I wasn’t familiar with.
There was a long silence.
“Passit?” The dispatcher asked.
“I’ll dispatch a tow truck to your location.”
“But my husband is-”
“You can file a missing person report in 48 hours, ma’am.”
“I can’t leave him out here!”
“Would you like me to dispatch a tow truck to your location?”
“And cops! And an ambulance! My husband is out here and he needs help, please!”
“I’ll dispatch a tow truck to your location.”
I screamed into my phone, but the dispatcher had already hung up. When I tried to call back, someone different answered.
“911, what is your emergency?”
“I need an ambulance!” I shouted.
“I’m showing a tow truck has been sent out, ma’am, please be patient.”
“I don’t want a damn tow-”
The line disconnected.
No matter how many times I called back, I got the same answer. I finally gave up and started circling the jeep again, calling for Andrew.
When the tow truck showed up, the driver, a burly man with a bushy mustache, barely asked if I was ok before he started hooking the car up.
“Wait!” I said. “My husband is out there somewhere, please help me look!”
“I’m just here to tow.” He said gruffly.
“Missus, you’re in Passit.” He said, like that should be be explanation enough.
“And I’m staying in Passit until my husband is found!”
“No, you ain’t.”
For such a large man, he moved deceptively quick and he had me up and over his shoulder before I could so much as scream. In my surprise, my phone tumbled from my hands and landed with a sharp crack upon the pavement. He opened the cab door of his truck and tossed me easily inside. I shrieked and scrambled to the driver’s side and immediately tried to push it open, but it was locked and the inside latch had been tampered with, making it impossible to unlock from the inside. I turned to gave him, terrified, and was surprised to find him regarding me sadly.
“I’m sorry about this.” He said and I believed him. “But you don’t wanna stay here; this is Passit.”
“Please don’t hurt me.” I whispered.
“I’m just here to tow.”
“I want to find Andrew…”
“Not here you don’t.”
He shut the door and walked around the back to finish hooking the jeep up. From where I sat, I could see the passenger door latch had also been tampered with, making escape through that door impossible too. When he came back to the driver’s side, I thought about leaping out when he opened the door, but his bulk prevented me. I shrank back to the other seat and watched him warily.
“I ain’t gonna hurt you.” He said.
“Just let me out then.”
“No. Not here. I’ll take you to wherever you wanna go, but I ain’t letting you out here.”
“Why?” I demanded shrilly.
“Because,” he said, “once Passit gets you, there ain’t no coming back. I guarantee you, missus, Passit got your husband.”
“What does the even mean?”
“It means your husband ain’t never coming back.”
He put the truck in gear and started to pull away.
In that moment, I could only watch through tears as the dark started to roll by and we left Passit and my husband behind.