Contest #222 shortlist ⭐️

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Fiction

Most people think they’d hear it coming. They imagine it like the movies–a low rumble that grows into a roar, as of an awakening giant. In reality, once you pass the trigger point into the convexity, the slab makes almost no noise at all. It sloughs and sighs, a gruff whisper that builds at your back and pelts you with shards, its full magnitude only apparent when it’s too late to do anything. In the next breath, the mountain swallows you whole, using its thousand-pound jaw to crack your skis and snap your ribs and torque your left hip out of its socket, until you are completely consumed by the white oblivion.

The first thing you’ll think after the world stops crashing down on top of you is: am I dead? If you're one of the twenty-four unlucky Americans who die every year as a result of an avalanche, then unfortunately yes. But if you’re me, then no, at least not yet. You're just intensely disoriented and struggling to figure out which way is up. You’re the proverbial mosquito trapped in a block of amber, helpless, expecting at any moment to go into shock and asphyxiate.

Until you remember you have a top-dollar instructor who insisted on equipping you with an airbag. The rip cord is on your left. Pull it, but don’t be surprised if you’re not immediately carried to the surface, especially if there’s a layer of hoar frost overhead. You may have to settle for a pillow-sized pocket opening up, allowing just enough wiggle room to breathe. If your instructor is really good–Maggie Cochran good–then you’ve got a beacon already activated and sending out a distress signal, and she will be tracing along the fracture line with a transceiver, knowing you’ve got approximately fifteen minutes to live. You’ll also have a folding shovel with which to dig yourself out, if you can reach it.

As you set to work chopping desperately at the half-ton of debris, don’t think about how you’re sacrificing oxygen for movement. Ignore the intrusive statistics that seek to discourage you, such as the fact that 87.7 percent of avalanche fatalities see the victim fully buried. When horrific pain flares through your body like a lightning rod, and fatigue creeps into your joints from the repetitive motion, you may be tempted to blame yourself. You thought Maggie’s warnings of a post-snowfall slide were overblown. You can admit it now. You were enticed by the sparkle of pristine powder in the sun, the promise of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Well, you got what you asked for. Now every decision could be your last. But pointing fingers won’t accomplish anything, so try to focus on the task at hand.

“You’ve got this…” Maggie would say, stern and slender in her signature blue snowsuit that matches her weathered eyes, a lone chestnut curl stuck to her temple. She is the first person you actually believe when she says it. Even now, teeth chattering beneath the ice as it glistens in the amber light of the beacon, you believe she sees greatness in you, what she called “unwavering tenacity”.

But you’ve only managed to dig out a few feet so far. You need to adjust the angle to prevent more snow from falling in. And be mindful of your breath, because the heat is melting the ice and turning it into concrete when it refreezes. Keep calm by listening to the sound of her voice. “Beginner and intermediate skiers tend to lean too far back, trying to fight gravity. But I’ve noticed advanced skiers usually have the opposite problem: they lean too far forward like they’re eager to eat the wind.” Picture her tapping both sides of Dallas’s boot, then his heel. Recall the younger man’s inability to hide his delight at being touched by her. “Three points of contact, like a tripod. Perfectly balanced over the knees. And we don't park-and-ride, we extend our outer leg at the apex of the curve, when…?”

“When the tension is highest!” you’d say in unison, but really you were trying to outshout each other. You don’t much care for Dallas. Everything he owns is printed in the same drab olive camouflage, including his thermos, but he’s never served in the military. He just likes the pattern. And his breath always smells like spoiled milk.

“That’s right,” Maggie would smile, and for a moment the slopes would thaw and bask in the glow. “Keep that turn shape nice and round.”

Later, when she’s out of earshot, Dallas will say, “I know something else that’s nice and round,” and wink at you, and nudge you with his insufferable elbow. He thinks you two are alike. He wants to be your bro.

If at this point you suddenly pass out, do not throw in the towel. This is to be expected when your brain is deprived of oxygen for too long. There’s a good chance you’ll experience a brief, brutal dream of your loved ones–your siblings and their kids, your parents, the girl you wanted to marry but who got away–and awaken in a gasp to find you're in the same frozen tomb. You cannot afford to panic, but time is running short. Get to work.

“Beware of blue sky syndrome,” you can hear Maggie saying. “You’re going to see beautiful blue skies today. All that fresh, untouched powder. 'It's the perfect day to ride', you'll say. But the last storm cleared out this morning at four AM. That means you’ve got slabs everywhere just waiting for a trigger.”

What were you doing when she looked straight at you and said, “Conditions are NOT safe for off-piste exploration”? Perhaps you were fixated on Dallas. His dumb haircut with the swirl shaved in the side like a ram’s horn. The way he never blinks when Maggie's speaking. Maybe you were busy conceptualizing your route, drawing out the skintrack, planning ways to leave him in your dust. And now–go figure–you wish you hadn’t.

“I’m gonna head back and do a few laps on the blues,” he said, a foreboding in his voice, but an unwillingness to issue an outright warning. Does he find you intimidating? When you disappeared in the direction of the backcountry, he watched you go with a sad shake of his head. But he didn't try to stop you.

“Fucking Dallas." It’s totally fine, it's not like he can hear you down here. But you need to literally and figuratively dig deep because the last of your strength is waning. The awful ache in your shattered ribs and hip has gone numb, a relief that arrives as a bad omen, not a good one.

Hit the ice with the tip of that spade again, and again, and again. Do not count the strikes, just keep going. You have to murder the mountain. There is no other way.

“Can I tell you something, Alex? Between you and me?”

“Of course.”

“I don’t think my heart is in this anymore.” The one time you saw her off the slopes, in the lodge. “I am getting too old. The air up here has seeped into my bones. I feel it even when I’m at home. Like the marrow is frostbitten. It hurts.”

“You’re not old, Maggie,” you said, offended on her behalf.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not ashamed of my age. Nothing is meant to last forever. But…we should listen to our body when it tells us something, shouldn’t we?”

Not now. Do not listen to your body now as it pleads with you to stop. Push through. Memories like this are a trick of your subconscious, the devil on your shoulder inviting you to quit. Brush them aside.

“What else would you do?” you asked and instantly regretted your tone. You meant to convey curiosity about her other interests, but it came out sounding discouraging. You could see her parsing the question, and because she's Maggie Cochran, she decided you only meant the best.

“Oh, lots of things. I’d still work in the shop for part of the year. I could start a consulting business. Spend more time at home with my dogs and my husband. Do my arts and crafts.” The word husband hit you like a blast of cold air. Why doesn’t she wear a ring? She saw you glance at her bare hand–usually encased in a glove; you couldn’t help but marvel at how supple and strong her fingers looked in the firelight–and covered it self-consciously with the other. “I don’t wear a ring at work because I’d never forgive myself if I lost it to the mountain.”

“Gotcha,” you’d nodded. But you did not get her, nor shall you ever. That is the exclusive privilege of Mister Cochran. If that notion makes you bitter, then use it. Channel it into your digging.

“You have a real knack for this though, Alex. You’re a fast learner. I hope you come back next season, whether I’m here or not.” Most likely it's a combination of hypothermia and dehydration that's causing a shuddering moan to crawl out of you, but you really ought to conserve your breath.

Yes, you will be back. Because you’ll still be here, buried. And how will Maggie react when she finds out? Will she scream? Will she stare in mute horror, that gorgeous hand trembling as it presses over her perfect mouth?

This isn’t helpful. Focus. What will you do when you get home? The first order of business should be a scalding hot shower. Then a hearty meal, something warm and filling, like beef stew. You’ll get on the phone and call your ex. Tell her you made a terrible mistake, that she’s the love of your life. Tell her you’ll do anything to get her back. And so what if it’s really Maggie’s face you’re longing to see as your vision dims? Doesn’t matter. What your ex doesn’t know won’t hurt her.

Any moment now, a probe will penetrate the icy prison and you’ll be found. Even if it's Dallas who has to be the one to come to your aid, you’ll be grateful. He can play the part of hero, get his picture in the paper. You won’t begrudge him that. The helicopter will lift you to safety, and a single tear will spill down your cheek as you consider how close you came to losing it all. Then you’ll devote your life to avalanche safety. Maybe you and Maggie can do a speaking tour and share your experience with high school kids. Anything is possible.

Do not be alarmed if you become unmoored from time and space. It’s just your mind’s way of dealing with a tough situation. Feel her magical hands fold over the lobes of your brain like the origami bird she made for you out of printer paper. “It’s a ptarmigan. A ground-dwelling grouse. They tunnel into the snow to keep warm.” See where she set it on the mantel over the fireplace, how it comes alive there, rustling its feathers. You will start to imagine you are that bird. You will want to burrow into her winter jacket and make yourself safe among her pockets and buttons, to be carried with her wherever she roams. Whatever the case, do not forget your mission. You must survive.

“Why are you so nice to everyone?” you’ll ask, and whether it is the past or the present or a time of your own invention, you won’t be able to tell.

“Kindness is free,” she’ll answer. Your heart will rend itself at the prospect of that Olympic smile, a goddess beaming at a mere mortal. But she will remain serious.

“Nothing in this life is free,” you’ll say. “Not a single thing. It all comes at a price.”

“Really, Alex?” This is the look that ends you. It is sitting there just behind her eyes, only a glimmer, but something you recognize. Something you’d hoped to never see in her.

Ire.

As you try to lift the shovel and find it’s gotten too heavy, don’t despair. Close your eyes and relax. You did the best you could. This is where you must roost. Let the cold in. Let it sink its fangs into your frame, and don’t fight the collapse of your senses. Listen to Maggie’s final piece of advice: “If you’re ever caught in a slide, and you can’t jump up past the fracture line or gird yourself against a tree, try to stick one arm in the air. It will increase your chances of being found.”

As your last conscious act, thrust your fist up into the snow. You won’t be able to feel much by this point, but it will cost you nothing to believe you made it. You’ve broken through the crust and beaten the odds. There is fresh air tickling at the skin of your wrist. Soon your frenemy Dallas will grasp you by the hand and haul you to freedom, and never in your life will you again be so happy to have someone’s milk breath blown straight up your nose. You will weep, yes, and hug him close to you, and there will be Maggie with a helicopter nearby, watching it all. Her eyes will appear as they were meant to–bluer than the morning sky and filled to the brim with pride. Never a doubt in her mind–you are her favorite, the best student she’s ever had. That’s why she made you the ptarmigan. She knew someday you would emerge like this, a small and triumphant creature for whom the elements are no match. She knew you could do it.

She knew you could.








October 31, 2023 01:33

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7 comments

Story Time
18:16 Nov 13, 2023

I think the strength of the story lies in how carefully you set out what's expected and what the realty of a particularly intense moment is and how the protagonist (and subsequently, we, as readers) might react to it. I find this kind of internally-driven story to be difficult to pull off, and you did it well. Great job.

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Philip Ebuluofor
20:16 Nov 11, 2023

Congrats Nicholas. It's an educative piece and it sustains interest.

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Danie Holland
12:04 Nov 10, 2023

Hi you. First off, incredibly well written. We start the story with a fantastic juxtapose. How loud this situation is versus how quiet it is in reality. It says, "Shut up and pay attention. What I am about to share with you is something you think you know, but you don't." The intensity of it reminds me of a car crash. One second everything is going smoothly and the next second, depending on severity, you're trapped and it's too late to save yourself. It happens that quickly. I could really dive deep into the imagery you use in this story....

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14:51 Nov 10, 2023

Thanks Danie! Means a lot coming from such a talent :)

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Danie Holland
15:54 Nov 10, 2023

I’m back again, congrats on the shortlist! I knew this one was a great story. 💜

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Julie Grenness
21:23 Nov 08, 2023

Good story! Well written, the writer has created an intriguing battle against the odds. The use of language built a suspenseful word picture, leading to the suspense of the conclusion. I anticipate reading more such skillful story writing.

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Mary Bendickson
02:44 Nov 17, 2023

Congrats on the shortlist. Awesome story.

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