A travel advisory from the National Weather Service warned a blizzard was coming, stay indoors, do not venture out. Mark threw their bags in the trunk and put a few emergency items in the backseat: water, snacks, blankets, a first aid kit. Vanessa left the key on the kitchen counter for the owners and hurried their son into the Jeep Cherokee they had rented.
The only advice Mark and Vanessa trusted was each other’s. When faced with important decisions, too many strange feelings that led to the right choice had convinced them to live off their instincts. And their instincts were yelling: Leave, get off the mountain, don’t wait it out.
Mark had received two job offers after college: a multi-million-dollar, high-tech giant or a little group of twenty people working on a project so obscure, even the founder couldn’t explain it. Mark’s gut said go small when his friends told him to take the big tech job. Some of the little company’s success was built on his uncanny business decisions and he made a small fortune at a time when the tech giant was going through its third round of layoffs.
Mark drove down the town’s main street. All the shops were closed but cars lined up at the gas station on the corner. He kept going. Another feeling told him they had a better chance of coasting down the mountain on half a tank of gas than wasting thirty minutes in line. The entrance to the four-lane highway was jammed. Cars inched along from the on-ramp to the bend on the horizon. Snow had reduced it to two lanes.
Mark looked over at Vanessa. “Backroads?”
She stared within herself and only nodded, frozen in a fetal position. He trusted her instincts as much as his own. Whenever doubt crept in over an important decision, her confirmations released the tightness in his chest. It was like having a second, onboard computer for a NASA shuttle flight. A back up instinct.
Vanessa uncurled her body and chirped, “Anyone want snacks?”
Their son Derrick perked up. He got hungry when he was bored. His comic books had all been read. She passed back a bag of chips and a few apple slices. She made him eat one baby carrot and a celery stick with peanut butter spread on top just like her mom used to make.
After high school, she felt guilty about leaving her mom to go to medical school in the state of Sao Paulo–an eight-hour drive from home. A new guy, a younger guy, started dating her mom. Vanessa had a bad feeling about him, a nightmare feeling. He was polite and friendly but he tried too hard. She wanted to stay to protect her but a voice said go. Years later, after leaving her mom heartbroken, he showed up in the news. Statutory rape. The teenage daughter of a woman he had been living with. Vanessa never doubted her instincts again.
Mark eased the SUV down the windy road, each corner too narrow for cars coming the other way. The sky got greyer; the fog from the forest closed in. On this small road, all that mattered was that they could see the next bend. Visibility limited to their immediate needs. Like her instincts. She couldn’t see the future. Only feel it. It didn’t always make sense; she just knew she was right.
As a cardiologist, her ability to make a successful diagnosis was based on years of study, many more years of experience. Only when a difficult case presented itself, had she relied on instinct. Natural for any doctor to do this. But their search for house was different. That’s when she knew she had a gift. The real estate agent showed them four homes and they decided on the fixer upper with the noisy neighbors. The two-story Tudor charmed them but didn’t feel right. A year later they heard it burned down due to faulty wiring. And the house in the best neighborhood got hit with a series of robberies. Two years ago, a school shooting occurred across the street from the lovely ranch-style home. After that she didn’t want to know the consequences of making the wrong choice.
She rolled down the window to help her breathe. The air felt solid, dead. Every turn got harder to see. First a whisp of a cloud and then a denser fog crossed the road. The whiteness threatened her vision. Mark drove slower.
They met while vacationing in Spain, fell in love in a week, and had a long-distance relationship for a year. On a whim, he quit his job, moved to Brazil, and taught English. They got married in a month. Great guy, everyone said, but slow down. Not knowing about her gift, they worried her heart had clouded her head.
A mound of snow blocked the road. Going around it meant driving along the edge of a hundred foot drop off. An impulse, or fear of heights, told Mark to blast through the snow. He slammed the gas pedal to the floor. But he had paused before acting. More snow from the hill came tumbling down, hitting the back of the Cherokee, and pointing them toward the hill. He turned the steering wheel but the SUV didn’t respond. They lurched into a ditch. Had he waited half a second later to gun it, the snow would have rolled them over the edge into the creek below.
Mark put the SUV in reverse. Nothing. He put it in first. Still nothing. They were stuck.
An unfamiliar sensation passed over him. His stomach felt light. Dizzy. His fault. When the feeling to speed up came, he hadn’t responded fast enough. Everything they did today went against common sense and he never had a moment to think things through. It felt more like desperation than instinct. They could have stayed and rebooked their flight. At some point, better judgment would have to take precedent over instinct. They’d been riding their luck for too long.
Mark shoved the door open. The bottom edge scraped an inch of snow. He stepped carefully into the knee-deep mound and with a leap, his second step landed him on the pavement. Snow covered the back of the SUV. The front driver’s side tire was slammed hard into the snow pushing the suspension all the way down, only an inch from the frame. The front passenger’s side tire suspended a foot above ground.
They were stuck. This couldn’t be right. There had to be an explanation.
Vanessa didn’t like the cold. Winters were short in Brazil. Two weeks was all she could handle. Mark had insisted on this side trip to the mountains. All he wanted was to give Derrick a chance to play in snow. An experience every child should have. She wanted to spend the last three days of their trip at his parents where she could shop, but one look at Derrick and she agreed. They had wonderful time up here, she admitted. But now they had to go. Blizzard or not, instinct told her to leave.
But the idea of waiting an extra day or two in a cozy cabin really appealed to him. Hot chocolate. Warm fire. He got so little time to enjoy winter anymore. Brazil was always hot. They could show Derrick how fun it would be playing boardgames and reading by the window–a vacation without video games or the internet. Mark would have questioned Vanessa’s real motives but he felt it too. It wasn’t fear or inconvenience talking. The message was real. Get off the mountain now.
“Dad, I gotta pee.” Derrick cracked open the door behind the driver and waited for permission to climb out.
“Let me check if it’s safe.” Another mound of snow could fall any minute and they wouldn’t see it coming. The forest had disappeared. The whiteness had captured them in a room that blocked sound but had no walls.
“I really gotta go.”
“Vanessa, do we have an empty bottle?”
“Gross.” Derrick climbed out.
“Please be careful.”
Derrick walked around the front of the SUV and did his business in the ditch.
“Did you wash your hands?”
“Just kidding. Ask your mom for some handy wipes.”
Derrick tried to jump into the back but slipped on the pavement. He smacked his head on the floor of the Jeep Cherokee. He cursed but didn’t cry. Nothing serious. Mark knew his son’s expressions of pain since he was a baby. They evolved over time, less frequent, as a ten-year-old tries to tough out the pain. Derrick laughed at himself for falling and rubbed his head but when he took his hand away, it was covered in blood. Bright red and greasy.
Mark rushed to him. “You okay?”
“I’m fine. Doesn’t hurt. I just need a band-aid.”
“I’ve packed some in your bag.” Vanessa put down the cell phone and climbed over the seats to the back. She hadn’t seen the blood yet. She opened the box and looked at Derrick to see what size he would need. “Oh my god!” She reached out to her son.
Mark got a towel from his bag. Vanessa put pressure on the wound while Mark broke off a chunk of snow from the back and handed it to her. She wrapped it in the already stained towel and placed it back on the injury. The cold ice would restrict the blood vessels. She gave a frustrated look at Mark. Wondering, without words, what else could go wrong.
When it seemed like the blood had stopped, she took a look at Derrick’s head–a sideways gash that sliced the skin. She got some gauze and wrapped his head with a bandage. Good enough for now but he’d need stitches. He’ll be okay, she prayed, as long as they keep pressure on it.
A strong gust of wind dusted snow off the trees and landed on the windshield. The whiteness enveloped them. It faded out everything beyond the SUV.
“What are we going to do?” Vanessa asked.
Mark called 911 on the cell phone. No connection. The wind couldn’t affect the reception, nor this fog. Mountains maybe. Or the wind had knocked out a cell tower.
“Mark, what are we going to do?”
He kept trying the phone. “We wait. We don’t have a choice.”
“We passed a cabin before we got stuck. Can we walk to it? It’s not far. We can use their phone and call for help from there.”
“We can’t leave in this, Vanessa.” He couldn’t see the trees on the other side of the ditch.
They sat thinking. Listening. Sound and sight were the same. A dense nothingness. No cars passed. No highway hum. He estimated they still had five more miles of driving before this road reconnected with the highway.
The windshield fogged up. An eerie feeling came over him. The whiteness that had surrounded them had now entered the SUV. Mark wiped the glass with his sleeve.
“We have to go, Mark. I know it. I can feel it.” She kept her voice even and steady so as not to alarm Derrick.
“No, it’s the worst thing we can do. We’ll get disoriented and lost in a few minutes.”
“But that cabin, we passed it just seconds before we crashed.”
He didn’t like to be told they crashed. It implied it was his fault.
“Mark, it’s not far. Only one hundred meters away.”
Derrick did the conversion for him. “That’s a hundred yards, Dad. A football field. We can walk that. We’ll just stay on the road until we see it.”
“If we see it. If we’re able to see the road.”
“Mark,” she pleaded, “what does your instinct say? You know I’m right.”
She gave him a minute to think, to feel, to let the truth come to him.
He looked into her eyes. “My instincts say stay. Stay in the car and wait for help. The cell phone will work soon. The fog will lift. My instincts say if we stay, we will be safe tonight.”
Vanessa winced at what he’d said. His instincts had betrayed her.
“No, Mark! That’s not what I’m feeling. I’m feeling trouble. I’m feeling we have to go to the cabin. We have to go there!”
His chest felt a pang of hurt. He waited to breathe, waited for their instincts to align.
“It’s just fear you’re feeling right now, Mark. You’re scared but we’ll be okay. You know I’m right.”
He could only shake his head. He was trying to talk himself into going but that was wrong. To be true to himself, his instincts said they had to stay.
Ten minutes passed in silence. Ten minutes of not moving. Which was a decision. His decision. She broke the silence to reason with him.
“I’ll go. On my own. It’s my instinct. You stay with Derrick.”
“That’s crazy. You have no experience in this weather. And you’re the doctor. You need to take care of Derrick.”
“We have to trust our instincts. We have to do something!”
He had an idea. A stupid idea but it worked before.
“I’ll go. You stay here with Derrick. I’ll follow your instincts. You follow mine. Run the engine every hour for ten minutes. Honk the horn a couple times. Then turn it off. Okay? And keep trying the phone.”
“We have to do this together.”
“Maybe we don’t. Maybe that’s the message.”
He reminded her of their fight over the lawn chairs and she agreed. It was stupid but it had worked.
Before Derrick was born, they lived in California for two years while Vanessa did research at Stanford as a visiting scholar. They purchased four, hand-crafted, very expensive, lawn chairs for their deck and enjoyed them all summer with their guests. But when the first sign of bad weather came, Mark got them ready to store in the garage. Vanessa stopped him. She wanted to leave them out. Winter was depressing and an empty deck was too. They argued for over an hour about something so silly. Finally, out of desperation, Mark suggested a compromise. He would store two chairs in the garage and leave two out on the deck. She said that was stupid but agreed to do it. The next day when they had calmed down, they looked out the window. The two chairs looked good out there–four would have been too crowded and none would have looked empty. They laughed at one another. That was a good lesson in compromise.
Mark left with an extra layer of clothes, a flashlight and a bottle of water. Hopefully the trip would be easy, without much exertion. He wore a ski mask and goggles over his face.
He didn’t want to walk back over the mound of snow but that was the direction where Vanessa said the cabin was. Walking the other way, even though it was downhill, did not guarantee a nearby cabin.
The whiteout was bad. He felt his way around the mound and found the other side of the ditch. Shadowy trees appeared just off the road. He would walk in the ditch with his rubber boots until it stopped, thinking that would be the driveway to the cabin that Vanessa had seen. Stupid plan if snow covered the ditch somewhere. But what else could he do?
After an hour, Vanessa got through on the phone. Rescue workers showed up thirty minutes later. They took her and Derrick to the local hospital to sew him up–five stitches. Derrick couldn’t wait to show his friends. A snow plow came to clear the road and a sheriff sent a car after her husband.
Mark inched along the ditch and worked his way up the hill. With little else but the grey ground to stare at, his mind went wild. The cold, it messes with your thinking. Could it be affecting their feelings, their gut feelings? Had she been wrong because she was cold? Or was this a sign? Vanessa said she loved him but was she lying to herself? Was her true self telling her to leave him? Did she really want to stay with him?
Mark bumped his boot on a pipe. A pipe that went under the road, a driveway. On his left, there was a break in the forest and road that went up the hill. In the distance was a faint light and a ghostly cabin.
Out of caution, it took him ten minutes to get up the driveway, taking baby steps so as not to slip. A kerosene lantern hung from the porch. He knocked, rang the doorbell and went inside without waiting. It was too damn cold to be polite. He had only wanted to announce his presence.
In the living room, an elderly man sat in a chair by the fireplace with a blanket on his knees. A fading glow of embers was all that kept him warm. He breathed out a puff of air.
“Hello,” he said. “I called this morning for help but the phone’s out. She’s over here.”
“Who?” Mark asked.
The man pointed to a woman bundled up and asleep on a sofa. “My wife. She’s not well. I didn’t think anyone would come. I’ve been sitting here all day praying. You must have got my message.”
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I like how you handled the prompt. Really good ending. I like how you gave examples, especially the example about the chairs. Just a note, I think there is an "a" missing in the sentence about looking for a house. It says search for house, I think you might have wanted it to read search for a house. Keep writing
Thanks Lisa! I'm glad you liked my story. No matter how much I edit, a typo sneaks in once in awhile.
I know its very frustrating, after a while you have read the pages so many times that you just see what you want it see, that is why you always need an extra pair of eyes. The other thing that might help, it helps me is to read it out loud. When you do that you find everything. Hope this is helpful I was going to post every week like you are trying to do, but I saw this weeks prompt and I dont know one damn thing about skiing. I dont retire till later in the year so I think I am going to keep writing just two a month and see where I g...
I try to reserve Friday for a final review but I always feel rushed. I'll try reading it out loud. Thanks! My original goal was to submit a story every week but I've got a lot of errands stacked up. I think I'll try three a month. I love skiing but nothing is coming to me for a story so I'm taking this week off. Looking forward to reading your next one, Lisa!
Hi Craig. I really liked the twist to this story. I definitely didn’t see it arriving where it did in the end. Something I wanted more of was the relief that Vanessa must have felt when help arrived. Confirmation for her that Mark’s intuition was on track, so what did that mean for her intuition? Some kind of realisation that they hadn’t been wrong and maybe she was supposed to go to the cabin.
Thanks Rebecca! Yes, I did rush it at the end (too worried about the word count). If I decide to expand this story, I will definitely put in Vanessa's relief and thoughts about Mark. I tend to get caught up in the plot and forget to include character reactions. I'll remember that for future stories. Thanks! Looking forward to your next submission!
Craig, Aunt Ginger and I read your story. It certainly was suspenseful and we really liked the ending.
Thank you, Loren!