Contest #52 winner 🏆

138 comments

Submitted on 07/31/2020

Categories: Drama

I don’t prepare for storms. When the newscasters start preaching doom and gloom and pointing wildly at maps of orange and red masses crawling over my tri-state area, I change the channel. When the snowplows start gathering and the trucks drop salt on the highways, I take the back roads. And when people crowd the grocery stores, line up in the aisles, empty them of toilet paper and water and matches and cans of beans, as if they would really eat plain beans out of a can, I stay home and read on the couch.

I remember when I was six years old and my mother purchased a single gallon of water on December 31, 1999, in preparation for Y2K. The other people at the store were running around frantically grabbing anything they could, and she stopped to browse the discounted baked goods. With my clammy little hand wrapped in hers, I asked her why we weren’t buying a bunch of stuff like everyone else. As she pulled her hand away to inspect the sell by dates on two boxes of donuts, she said, “People have been predicting the end of the world for centuries, and it hasn’t happened yet. I don’t see how the tick of a clock could be the thing that puts us over the edge.” She placed the chocolate frosted donuts in the cart, and in my excitement I quickly forgot what I was so worried about.

The gallon of water stayed in the basement for years. Once, when we were clearing off the shelves, I asked her why she’d bothered to buy it, and she shrugged. “Insurance. I figured, if I bought one thing, nothing would happen.” She blew a cloud of dust from the container and said with an air of finality, “The Y2K water stays.”

In her own way, she was a little superstitious, I guess.

So maybe it’s my mother’s influence, or perhaps my own skepticism, but I still don’t prepare for storms. I have a few little insurance items of my own: a flashlight I bought at summer camp that still runs on its original batteries; a box of matches left by the previous tenant; a pack of Gatorade that seemed to just appear in my pantry (I don’t even like Gatorade); a collection of miniature Yankee candles; and yes, the very same gallon of Y2K water. I kept it when we cleaned out the house. Call me sentimental.

On a dark day in February, I turn the news on in the morning and they warn of an impending storm. At work, my colleagues glance anxiously out the windows every few seconds, worrying aloud that it might not be safe to drive home. As if their cars will be buried in a sudden avalanche of snow. I nod my quiet assent and say nothing. I know the storm won’t be bad, but it’s given them something to talk about, and why take that away?

I don’t listen to the radio on the way home; I connect my phone and listen to music, shuffled from the same 100 or so songs I always listen to. If I had listened to the radio, I’m sure it would have been Snow Watch central. They’d be calling it a “snownado” or some other terribly cute portmanteau. The roads are packed with cars crawling home to hunker down, honking at each other as if a single car is interrupting the flow of traffic. I’m glad I went grocery shopping earlier this week.

Any trace of sunlight is gone by the time I get home at 5:45 PM. I change out of my work clothes and into a pair of sweatpants and a ratty sweatshirt from college. When it gets dark so early, I always end up making dinner as soon as I get home. I knew this morning that it would be a good day for soup—I can feel a soup day in the air—and threw some vegetables and lentils in the crockpot, so dinner is already made.  

It's only after I’ve eaten dinner that I realize I’m out of milk.

As a kid, I never understood why my mother got so upset when we ran out of milk. It was the same when she asked me to take something out of the freezer to thaw. I just didn’t see why it was a big deal. Now, though, as an adult who, inexplicably, can’t fall asleep without a glass of milk before bed, I understand.

I’ll have to go to the grocery store.

I pull on a coat, some boots, and a hat, but I don’t bother to look out the window, so it’s only once I’m outside that I see the snow. It falls in big flakes, spiraling in the still air. I climb in my car, but I don’t turn on the heat. I like to see how far I can drive without turning it on. My breath comes out in white puffs and my hands freeze on the steering wheel, but still I don’t turn on the heat. I don’t need to waste the gas.

The grocery store parking lot is deserted. As I close the car door behind me, I’m struck with eeriness and dread, the kind I can only feel in an empty parking lot at night. Layered on top of my apprehension is relief that I won’t have to fight a crowd. I suppose I could have gone to a gas station for milk, but I only passed one on the way here, and countless other cars were already snaked around the pumps, desperate to fuel up before the storm. Besides, there’s always something a little off about gas station milk. It doesn’t feel right.

The sliding doors open as I approach, releasing the heat trapped inside. I shed my coat as I walk through. Grocery stores are never the right temperature. In the winter, they’re saunas. In the summer, you need a parka just to survive the frozen section.

I amble through the empty aisles with the shelves cleared of staple items. There is almost no cereal left. How much cereal can a household possibly go through? I know I should hurry, but there’s something peaceful about an empty grocery store. I could stand and debate two cans of tomatoes for twenty minutes, and no one would squeeze past me with a full cart and a dirty look.

By the time I reach the dairy section, though, I’m feeling sufficiently spooked. I can’t possibly be the only one who put off buying supplies. Can I?

I’m making my way to the cash register when I suddenly trip and fall to the floor, the gallon of milk flying out of my hands and bursting open. Some of it splashes into my face and onto the coat in my hands, and I try to dab it with my shirt. After a moment of muttering curses, I finally notice what I tripped over: a baby carrier with its cover pulled closed. I forget the milk momentarily as I reach forward and open the carrier, only to make eye contact with a wide-eyed infant who immediately begins to sob.

Frantically, I look to my left and right, but no one comes to my rescue. No distraught mother or absentminded father. Just me, the baby, and a gallon of spilled milk. With no other choice in sight, I curl my hand around the carrier handle and hoist it up. It’s heavier than I expect. The baby doesn’t cease crying, but I suppose I wouldn’t either. I coo in what I hope is a soothing way as I wander the aisles, looking for a wayward parent, but they’re still deserted. Only one register is open, and the cashier appears to be about 16, with a bored expression that suggests she will be absolutely useless in this situation.

“I dropped a gallon of milk in aisle 3,” I tell her sheepishly, and she just rolls her eyes. “Sorry,” I add, gesturing to the wailing baby as if that explains everything. She doesn’t reply, so I book it towards the exit and through the doors. Standing in the vestibule, I begin to panic. Is this kidnapping? Am I a kidnapper? With my free hand, I pat my pockets, looking for my phone, but of course I left it in the car. With a sigh, I say to the baby, “Sorry, little one.”

Outside, the snow is falling heavy, and I close the carrier again to shield the baby. I was only inside a short time, but my car is coated in an inch of snow. I open the back door and gently place the baby on the seat. There’s no car seat attachment in my car (why would there be?) so I pull a seatbelt across the carrier and hope that works. I’m smart enough to keep an ice scraper in my car, at least, so I turn on the car and the heat, and begin knocking the snow from my windshield.

When I’ve cleared most of it, I pick up my phone and dial 911. A dispatcher answers, and I explain what happened. I tell her I have the heat on, and the baby is safe, and I swear I won’t leave the parking lot. She says someone will come as soon as they can, but the road conditions are bad, and it could be a while.

It seems to me that she should be more concerned.

As we wait for help to arrive, I move to the back seat and sing lullabies. My voice is scratchy, numb from the cold, but the child’s gaze is unwavering, and I gradually feel my own anxiety fading, soothed by my own singing. I go through my entire repertoire of children’s songs, winter songs, holiday songs, and when I forget the words I just mumble. The baby has no idea.

During a poor rendition of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, my mind wanders to my own childhood, and the near constant presence of songs. My mother sang all the time, whether she was alone or not. She sang along to the radio in department stores and didn’t bother to keep her voice quiet.

I still miss her. With her lack of planning and her skepticism of forecasters, you might think she finally lost her life because she failed to plan for something foreseeable. That’s not what happened, though. She was diagnosed with cancer, and there was nothing she could have done, nothing she could do, nothing I could do.

So, when people ask why I don’t prepare, this is what I tell them: because in the end, no matter how prepared you are, you can’t prevent something terrible from happening.

I look at the child next to me. If I had prepared for the storm, I wouldn’t have come to the grocery store tonight. And then who would have saved the baby? The teenage cashier?  

When the officer taps on my window, I’m relieved. I tell my story again while she retrieves the car seat. She takes the baby from me and fastens the buckles on the seat.

And then I’m alone. The lights of the store still flood the parking lot, lending a sparkle to the still falling snow. I drive home slowly with my hazard lights on. At home, the power is out and the apartment is chilly. I light one of my candles with one of my old matches, wrap myself in a blanket, and sing myself to sleep. 

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138 comments

Zilla Babbitt
12:36 Aug 08, 2020

I love how you build the character and the ominous doomsday/Y2K scenario before even throwing her into the grocery store or introducing the baby. I found myself more interested in the mother and the main character than the actual roots of the prompt-- and I like that. I'm not really sure how to say this, but in a magical way, there was nothing specially exceptional about this story, save the no-planning mindset. It was a story... and still I was invested in the characters and appreciated the ending. An interesting style that I'm not used to,...

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16:02 Aug 09, 2020

Thank you, Zilla! I was not thrilled about this prompt when I first read it, which is why I tried not to make the baby the focus. I'm happy to see you describe it as magical, because I love magical realism and though I don't think I can claim to write in that genre, I do try to give my stories a somewhat magical or otherworldly atmosphere, even when, as you write, nothing exceptional happens. Thanks again!

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Zilla Babbitt
00:07 Aug 14, 2020

You're so welcome!

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Natalie Larsen
06:30 Aug 11, 2020

Zilla gives the words to my thoughts perfectly. At the end of the story, my brain was thinking “wow, that didn’t have too much of a plot”, yet my heart felt oddly sad as it does when I finish good stories. I love the undertones and message I interpret from this story. It took a very different turn than I was expecting, which I always appreciate.

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Rayhan Hidayat
01:34 Aug 04, 2020

Ah I love the way the narrator’s reluctance to prepare for the worst manifests (like not turning on the car heater). There’s a certain wisdom to just turning off the news and not giving a damn that I think we can all appreciate. Your writing is very clean, with the right words in the right places, and no overly dense descriptions or anything like that. Good stuff overall! 😊

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20:03 Aug 05, 2020

Thank you for your comment, Rayhan! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

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Rayhan Hidayat
22:17 Aug 05, 2020

It’s no problem. If you can spare the time, I’d love to hear your thoughts on my latest submission 🙂

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Rayhan Hidayat
21:10 Aug 07, 2020

And we have our winner (not for the first time, too 😮) Congrats, Natalie! I can’t believe I was the first one on this bandwagon haha

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04:27 Aug 10, 2020

Congrats! You won the weekly contest. It's really fabulous story.

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Amany ⛅️
17:20 Aug 07, 2020

Oh, wow! I had read this before it won but didn't comment. Congrats! Enjoy spending your fifty bucks, lol.

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Kat Gruszka
22:22 Aug 05, 2020

Your writing style makes me want to grab a drink with you! Its fun and light. A little sarcastic but over the top genuine. This was a great read. I honestly have no criticisms or even comments for improvement. Great work!

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23:44 Aug 05, 2020

This comment made me so happy! Slightly sarcastic but genuine was the exact tone I was going for, despite the serious subject. Thank you!

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Kat Gruszka
00:16 Aug 06, 2020

You are very welcome! :)

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00:53 Sep 16, 2020

This is a deserved win, all right! You writing is really intriguing...awesome job!

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Laura Clark
17:58 Aug 07, 2020

This is such an excellent character study with a lot of heart. A very deserved win, well done!

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Conan Helsley
17:53 Aug 07, 2020

The writing was good, but I kept waiting for more and when it never came, I was quite disappointed. No explanation or even hint of the baby's origin or it's parents fate? No explanation of why the store was empty after describing how people always fill stores before storms? I think with your talent you could have brought a pretty good story out of this prompt. This one, however, seemed like the most basic attempt at it. If the questions presented by the events had been at least hinted at, so that there were some informed guesses as to what w...

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18:10 Aug 07, 2020

I thought the baby was insignificant to the story. The carry over of a mother's ways to a daughter is so real. I wish I had known this much earlier in my life. A wonderful read.

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02:46 Aug 08, 2020

Thanks for your honest feedback, Conan. This was a very narrow prompt, and I did consider doing more with the lost baby/empty grocery store aspect, but I decided that wasn't what I wanted to focus on, opting to instead develop my narrator. In a longer story, those are certainly points I would explore! Creating tension and tighter plotting are both skills I'm actively working to improve in my writing practice.

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Conan Helsley
02:56 Aug 08, 2020

I started to think that might have been what was going on. Like I said, you're definitely talented, which is why I expected something good at the end and was so disappointed. But you are definitely good at this, so please don't take my comments as disparaging.

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12:24 Aug 08, 2020

Thank you! I really do appreciate the constructive criticism. If I’m being totally honest, this isn’t my favorite story I’ve written (I almost didn’t submit it), so if you get the chance to read any of my other stories I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

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Conan Helsley
18:51 Aug 08, 2020

I will read some more. I'll try to get to some in a bit, when I have my coffee.

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Arielle - Reedsy
18:07 Aug 06, 2020

What a wonderful submission, Natalie! A really fresh character study within the frame of a snowstorm — and you even managed to find a way to naturally incorporate the abandoned baby! Awesome 👏

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00:58 Aug 07, 2020

Thank you so much, Arielle! This was admittedly a very tricky prompt, but it was fun to figure out how to include the baby without it feeling forced.

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21:04 Sep 17, 2020

Hi Arielle! I'm not sure if you're still on this site but I find that this is the only way to reach you. If you can, can you please send me your email? I need to write to Reedsy but I'm not sure how to get in touch with the right people. Thanks! And great story Natalie! I absolutely adored it!

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Dhananjay Sharma
09:12 Sep 21, 2020

Beautifully constructed. Simply amazing. https://blog.reedsy.com/creative-writing-prompts/contests/59/submissions/34852/ give a read to mine. also I would love to interact with you and discuss writing as a profession provided we could share contact details.

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08:50 Sep 11, 2020

Great story and congs upon your win hope you can check out my new story.

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Evelyn Wong
05:07 Sep 03, 2020

Beautiful and bittersweet at the end!

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Ola Hotchpotch
19:21 Sep 02, 2020

I loved the lines of your story" no matter how well you prepare.......". While nursing a paralysed Street dog on the streets of varanasi , a small city in uttar pradesh of India, I learned that no matter how much knowledge and education you have gathered, you never stop learning. The vet said it that it was no use keeping him alive. It was distemper and like all street dogs he had not got the vaccines. But the disease was not that responsible for his suffering. It was the attitude and mindset of the people who did not want him to live.

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Mini Kohli
07:36 Sep 02, 2020

I don't remember if I told you before, but I really loved how you built up the tension, how the character "cradled" the baby till the end and how an uneventful day turned into something very significant for her and the baby:)

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22:22 Sep 08, 2020

Thank you, Mini! I really appreciate it :)

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Sarah Firth
17:23 Aug 31, 2020

i really enjoyed the arc of the narrator’s relationship to disaster preparedness in relation to their mother. learning in the end that she died of cancer and the takeaway being that you really can’t prepare for the disasters that will hit you hardest was quietly heartbreaking and really well done. and then you softened it by offering the counterbalance: sometimes being unprepared means you’re available to prevent other disasters. i love it.

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Elise Holder
15:33 Aug 31, 2020

This was a great read, Natalie! You do a great job developing your main character, something that I am working on getting better at right now. I loved the character's personality and approach to disasters. She's what makes the story so interesting and fun to read.

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Andrew Krey
01:51 Aug 31, 2020

Congrats on the win! I really liked the way she simply accepts the characteristics she's inherited from her mother; and the baby crying over spilt milk was a nice touch.

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Sabrina Chen
23:55 Aug 30, 2020

I love your writing style!

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Laura Everly
18:21 Aug 30, 2020

I loved this story couldn't stop until I got to the end nice flow of the storing even wanted more of the story

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Natalie Frank
15:09 Aug 30, 2020

I love seeing the reasoning behind her strategy pull through in the end. Her sense of voice is strong throughout the whole piece, and in my head, I have this very clear idea of how she might look. In confession, I only meant to skim this piece but I was sucked into it!

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