2016 Fiction Contest Third Place - Zero Visibility by Michael Downing
In July of 2015, we announced our second fiction contest. Out of dozens of entries, we selected the following winners. Read the winning stories in Kitchen Drawer throughout 2016.
First Place: “Swinging” by Kaylee Tuggle Matheny
Second Place: “Patchwork Heart” by Tiffani Long
Third Place: “Zero Visibility” by Michael Downing
Fourth Place: “The Last Hunt” by Lewis Brewer
By: Michael Downing
“Keep moving!” I think it’s Jon from behind me. Then Jeff yells, “I gotta stop—just for a minute!”
“No!” Jon screams. “We have to find cover! We gotta get off this road!”
The wind is burning; it cuts right through the thin jacket I’m wearing. My face is burning. Someone yells again from behind me, but the words are swept away in the storm. I stop and turn around. The wind, snow, and ice pellets feel like BBs on my skin. A hurricane of frozen water and pain assaults me from every direction. I start moving again, one foot in front of the other. I think we’re off the road now. Still, there’s no cover, only stone. Zero visibility.
The rock beneath my feet is coated in ice. I’m wearing tennis shoes, for Christ’s sake. “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” I chant to myself as I slip and slide across the frozen rocks. The wind pushes me forward then sideways. I feel like a drunk ice skater. Cold, hurt, blind. I fall.
“Jeff? Jon?” The howling of the wind rips the names from my mouth. I try to stand, but the wind shoves me down again. Violence—raw violence. This is not weather. This is the voice of God. Revelations. My hand feels broken. I tuck it under my shirt and jacket, and the cold stings like hornets.
I’m not thinking. I have to think. I’m thinking that I’m dying. “Stupid, stupid, stupid.” I begin my chant again, crawling forward on my hands and knees.
We should have stayed with the car. I was sure of that. But after two days the weather broke, and we made a decision to head back south. We had passed a cabin maybe 10 or 15 miles back. We could do it in a day. Our best thinking, right? “Stupid, stupid, stupid.” Another front rolled over just a couple of hours into our hike. I could feel the pressure change in my head. The temperature dropped 30 or 40 degrees in minutes. Then came the wind, snow, and ice—huge black-gray clouds of swirling motion. An epic storm, even by the local standards in this part of Alaska. Total whiteout.
I clawed my way forward with one hand, willing my way ahead. I was slowing down, my shivering like convulsions. I was thinking, “This is how I die.” Suddenly, the way forward was blocked by a wall of rock. Frozen, it felt like glass.
I went left, following the curve of the wall of stone, the snow and ice piled three or four feet deep at the base. I pushed my body into the drift, praying for shelter from the wind and ice that were killing me. I no longer thought about my friends. I came to a small corner in the stone, made myself into a ball, and pressed myself into the rock. I could go no further. I no longer felt the cold. My only thought was of sleeping.
Suddenly I was moving again, sliding through the drift on my back. I tried to speak, but no words came out. Something was pulling me by my feet. The last thing I saw was the wall of stone passing above my head. I was being pulled into the living rock. The screaming of the wind grew oddly distant. I passed into blackness.
I awoke to warmth: yellow-red fire in a circle of stones. I was naked, wrapped in warm furs. My head rested on my pack. I tried to move and a wave of pain washed through my brain like cold water. I lay still, absorbing the warmth, like a long-dry sponge absorbs the wet. A cave. As my eyes adjusted I could see the far wall. Red and black paintings of running deer and elk seemed to dance in the firelight. Then I saw him.
He sat cross-legged, away from the fire: a huge man working with something in a small bowl. He wore a long, heavy coat and boots. I remember his boots—leather maybe, laced all the way up to his knees. A thick mane of black hair hung around his shoulders. He put down the bowl and looked at me with dark, intense eyes. He nodded once as an acknowledgement of my consciousness, then returned to his work.
“Thank you,” I said. He made no effort to reply. His eyes stayed fixed on his work. “I have friends out there,” I said, suddenly thinking of Jeff and Jon. I sat up. Pain. My muscles ached as the cold invaded.
I looked to my new friend. “They’re going to die out there!” I was pleading through chattering teeth. He looked up, but his expression didn’t change. The muffled fury of the storm made the mountain I now lay under vibrate. I realized my friends might be lost to me.
What were we thinking? People had warned us. “Wait till next year,” they had said. “It’s already fall.” It was just a stupid road trip. We had been sitting around drinking beer when Jon brought it up: fly to Alaska, rent a Jeep, see some country, drive on the famous “ice road.” Stupid, right? We had no clue.
“Who are you?” I asked. “You stay here?” Nothing. Then he stood. God, he was huge. The cave was maybe six or seven feet from floor to ceiling. He couldn’t stand without bending over, a giant. I thought of Goliath.
He walked over to where I lay. He looked at me for a moment, then bent over and set the bowl beside my head. He placed the back of his thick hand across my forehead, like a mother checking for fever in a child. His face softened, and he nodded toward the bowl. Then he stood again and returned to his place toward the back of the cave.
I realized I was thirsty. I took the bowl. Pottery, maybe? It contained what looked like thin soup. There were pieces of what appeared to be meat, or maybe mushrooms, and greens in a steaming broth. It smelled good. I raised it to my lips and took a sip. It was warm, and it was good. I drank. “Thank you,” I said for the second time. He watched me from his seat, but made no effort to respond.
“You don’t talk much,” I said, not expecting a reply. “People talk too much,” he said, his eyes fixed on the fire. His answer startled me. His voice was deep and clear. It seemed to echo around the small cave.
“You saved my life,” I said. He nodded in agreement. “At least tell me your name.”
He looked down as if thinking, remembering. “I’m called Michael,” he said at last. “Like the angel,” I said. He nodded slowly, then echoed my words, his eyes far away. “Like the angel,” he whispered. His eyes refocused and he looked up. “Sleep now,” he said. My eyes closed, and I felt like I was falling. I dreamed of bells and water.
When I woke up, I was in darkness. I reached out and found my pack. I fumbled with the zipper, then opened it and felt for the flashlight. When I switched it on, I saw the small cave was empty and bare, save for my clothes and my pack. The plush furs I had lain in were nothing more than tattered rags of some long-dead animal’s hide and bones. The circle of stones was cold and empty. No coals, no ashes. I shined the light all around the cave. Several feet away, a rough pottery bowl lay broken on the ground.
A wave of panic washed over me. I scrambled to my feet and grabbed my clothes and my pack. I dressed quickly. My clothes were dry and warm. At the front of the cave, I found a small opening packed with snow. I dug with my hands until I broke through. A shaft of sunlight shone into the cave.
I took a last look behind me, then pushed my way through and was free. The sky was clear and blue. Rivulets of water ran down the face of the stone wall. I leaned in and drank, then stood and waded out into the thigh-deep snow. I got my bearings and headed back east toward the road. I was alive. There would be time to think later. I had to find my friends.