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Image: Surian Soosay

The Interruption

Debbie Urbanski

A story about connection issues.

Image: Surian Soosay

Maintaining a strong connection is one of the great challenges of our digitized, distraction-stuffed world. Here's a pertinent story about what might happen when that connection gets interrupted. Enjoy. -the Ed.

Brian wasn't picking up his phone.

She rang him again.

She rang him again.

She rang him again.

She rang him again and he picked up.

"I sure hope this a major emergency, like you're dying. I sure hope somebody's dying," Brian said, his voice impatient and short. Well, what did she expect. She was interrupting him. Interrupting a meeting, probably an important one. All his meetings were important.

"I'm lost," she told him.

"I don't believe this," he muttered. This was followed by silence on the phone.

"Hello? Brian? Are you still there?"

"Listen, all you need to do is retrace your steps. That's what most people do anyway. Hold on a minute." She heard shuffling, a low apology, the closing of a door, footsteps. "Where are you?"

"If I knew, I wouldn't be calling you, would I?"

"I meant where were you last."

"I was driving home after lunch on the same route I always take. Only today I turned right, at that intersection near the gas station."

"The Mobil?"

"No, the other one."

"Why on Earth did you turn there?

"Because I wanted to. After that, the road changed. Actually, everything seemed to change. Not at once, but slowly. All the houses began to fade. Do you know what I mean?"

"No. I don't know what you mean. Did you take something you weren't supposed to take? Are you drunk?"

"The houses faded so gradually I didn't notice at first until they were like ghost houses. Then the houses weren't there anymore. Instead I was in some kind of valley, and the road was a dirt road, then the road stopped. I got out of the car and started walking. It was really beautiful for a while."

"You left the car? You're not in the car anymore?"

"Well, the road ended. What was I supposed to do?"

"You were supposed to turn around! Go in reverse."

That hadn't been a possibility. Before leaving the car, she had looked in the rearview mirror and saw there was no longer a road. It was as if, she told Brian, something had picked both her and the car up and placed them carefully in this strange location.

"Ridiculous!" he spat out.

Not even her tire tracks remained.

She had walked away from the car, climbing a faint trail that led to the top of a ridge, from where she could see a pure blue lake glistening in the distance, the kind of geographic feature you might find at the end of a hike, the place where you had lunch then turned around. She hadn't brought anything with her from the car except her phone. The plaid travel umbrella was in the glove compartment, the first aid kit in the back seat, the bag of salted almonds somewhere on the floor. Last summer Brian had started making her drive around with several gallons of bottled water, in case of emergencies. That water was in the trunk. She had thought it was going to be a short walk. She had thought, at the top of the ridge, surely she would see a strip mall to her right, or at least an asphalt road winding between the hills over there. Standing on the ridge, she had turned around, wondering how far she had come, but she could no longer see the car. In fact, she found herself unable to recognize anything behind her or in front of her. Even the way the soil mounded wildly looked different, and what about the gnarled plants and those rough bushes? None of it she had seen before. She had run down the ridge then. Once she reached level ground, she vomited in the grass, then vomited again. When she stood up, she could find neither the ridge nor the lake anymore.

"I sure hope the kids aren't with you," said Brian.

"They're in school. You need to pick up them up at 3 o'clock. Sadie has soccer."

"What are you talking about? I'm booked in meetings all the fucking afternoon. You are going to pick our kids up like you do every day. That's your job. Now listen. Here's what I want you to do. I want you to take a few deep breaths and open up Maps on your phone. I want you tell me where it says you are."

She had already tried this. It was the first thing she tried after that panicked episode on the ridge. Her phone couldn't locate her. Or rather, it located her but in the incorrect places. She was, apparently, in her childhood home in Illinois. A few minutes later, she was in the resort town in Colorado where she and Brian had honeymooned. She was back in Minnesota in the middle of nowhere beside a turkey farm.

Brian sighed. "Let me see if I can find you." He placed her on speaker and did something on his phone. He didn't say anything.

"Where does it say I went, Brian?"

He still didn't say anything.

"You're supposed to know where I am," she said.

"I think you should head north. If you walk north long enough, you're going to run into a road, and if you follow that road, you're going to eventually reach a town. You can get help there. Get a ride back."

"I don't know what direction north is."

"Look at the sun."

"It's right above me."

"It can't be right above you. It's after two."

"Well, you can argue all you want about it."

She had been out of the car for at least two hours. The sun, which really was stuck right above her, had begun to burn the skin on her face and on her arms. There wasn't much she could do about this. She was in a shadeless meadow, the kind of place you see in the mountains right above the tree line. They used to vacation every year to somewhere like this, when the kids were young and would cry if they had to hike farther than a mile, and her daughter was always falling down.

They didn't live near any mountains.

She sat on a warm rock.

"Where are you now?" Brian asked. "What do you see?"

"It's pretty, at least," she said. "There was a lake a while back."

"What size was the lake?"

"It isn't there anymore."

Clouds were moving in from the left, whatever direction that was, low hanging and gray. "It's funny, isn't it," Beth said, "that I'm the one out here. I always thought it would be you. That I'd wake up one morning and the bed would be empty, and all your clothes would be gone, and I wouldn't be able to find you."

"I'm not going anywhere."

"Well, you sure talked about leaving. This should simplify things for us, shouldn't it? There will be a lot less decisions for you to make."

"Don't talk like that," he said. At least, Elizabeth thought that was what he said. It was difficult to understand him, as he had begun coughing. He coughed directly into the phone's microphone. She heard him spit. He said, "Do you remember how it used to be when we first met? It was like we were the last two people left in the world. Nothing else mattered. The world could have disappeared and it wouldn't have mattered."

She watched the grasses around her move repetitively in the wind.

"Or were you just pretending," he said. "Beth?"

"I used to count in my head, this is how many times I will need to have this happen to me before I'm dead."

"Nice. That's a great description of making love."

"Do you remember the time I dug my nails into my arm until my arm started bleeding on the sheets? Even then, you didn't stop."

"Because what kind of person thinks that shit when their husband is touching them? I was the one who tried the pills. Do you even remember? You wouldn't take any because how you felt was like this sacred thing so I thought, fine, I will. I'll become a different person who never needs to fuck his wife."

"What do you want me to do, thank you for trying? Thanks a lot for trying. Nice effort."

A glossy black bird flew overhead and landed several feet in front of her, scouring the grass with its beak. She stood up, meaning to approach it slowly and inconspicuously, but the bird startled and flew away.

Brian said, "So this is it. You're ready to leave me, to leave the kids, without saying goodbye."

"You're acting like it's a choice I made."

"Come on. Nobody forced you to be in that place. What if you had never gotten out of the car? Certain people, you know, certain spouses, or mothers, would never have gotten out of the car. Or better yet, they would have never turned down a road they didn't recognize."

She wondered if he was right. There had been that moment at the stoplight when her phone ordered her to go straight, the direction in which their house waited, with its sagging futon, and the water damage on her son's ceiling which they were ignoring for now. Several blocks further out, in the same direction, was her children's school, where her daughter was drawing pictures of families that didn't look like theirs, while her son got into fights beside the classroom cubbies. She had ignored her phone's instructions.

"You're breaking up," he said. "Did you say something?"

The sun, half-hidden by clouds, still hadn't moved. Surely it should have moved by now. Hadn't she read somewhere that the worst part of being lost was in the beginning, until you stopped trying to find your way back? Her pulse slowed to a lazy insignificant beat and she set the phone down on the rock. Out of the speaker came the buzz of Brian's voice. She had set the phone down gently.

In front of her, a line of trees came into view that she hadn't noticed before, the start of a sheltering green forest. The trees looked out of place in the meadow. She had read a story to her daughter once about a child who lived in a forest for years, a child who hadn't wanted anything else but his tree. The tree became his companion. She had to explain this many times to her daughter, who kept crying on behalf of the boy. "Look, but he's fine. He wants to be there!" Her daughter never believed her. They had to put that book away and start another book, so she never found out if the boy lived in the tree forever, or if he finally made himself go home.

A cloud of insects with green wings rose out of the tall grasses and fluttered around her shoulders. She stilled herself and held out her hand. Several of the insects landed in her palm though only one stayed. It felt like she was holding a feather that the wind might blow away. The insect, she didn't know what it was, something like a butterfly mixed with a grasshopper, wandered along her fingers, treading gently across her skin, until it lowered its head and bit the tip of her thumb. It only hurt for a moment. There wasn't blood. It wasn't that kind of insect. She didn't shake it off but decided to carry it with her for as long as it allowed her to.

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