30-Day Flash Challenge, Day 5

Photo by Hans Eiskonen on UNSPLASH.

We were supposed to have four solid days of good weather. We got about twelve hours, then the snowstorm hit, and for two hours, we sat hunkering down in one of the shelters along the Appalachian Trail designed for the thru and section hikers.

Taylor’s smartphone finally got one bar, and that’s when we learned the weather patterns shifted and, despite half a dozen computer models that showed the front sliding harmlessly behind us, this mamba Jamba storm climbed the ridge and overtook us. We couldn’t stay in this shelter. We’d brought our lighter bags, and they were only good to 40 degrees. We could eke out a few more degrees out by huddling together, of course, but the forecast called for several days of sub-zero temperatures. We have to leave this shelter, and we have to do it soon. The Appalachian Trail is very well marked from end to end with white blazes. The irony? We were about to have a whiteout snowstorm; a blizzard projected to dump 2–3 feet of snow on us in a day.

We had hiked eighteen miles from the trailhead, and we had an hour, maybe an hour and a half before we lost all daylight, so beating a retreat back to our SUV wasn’t an option.

“So, we have to make a decision, gang,” I said to the family. As a father, I’ve generally leaned towards the democratic mode of leading.

“We don’t have enough time to make it back to the Rav,” Taylor says. She is intelligent; she has a full-ride scholarship to Vassar, studying pre-law.

“Which means we have to find another shelter,” Tommy finishes for her, patting the wall of the shelter.

Sheila is already up, repacking her pack, putting away the snack we just enjoyed.

“Sonny, come on, boy,” Sheila shouts.

Sonny comes immediately. He jumps up onto the shelter platform and shakes the snow off his back.

Taylor, Tommy, and I open the map app on her phone while her signal strength still flickers at one bar.

The map loads, but it takes several seconds for the image to render. Sheila has joined us by the time it is loaded.

“Now, be careful not to pan the image too quickly, or it will have to reload everything,” I say to Taylor. She must be scared because she hands the phone to me. So much for democracy. I take the phone, steady it between both hands and zoom outwardly from our present location. It appears like it’s going to reload the page, but then the image stabilizes. I am both grateful for the technology but simultaneously cursing myself for not bringing a paper map. They have their limitations, sure, but signal reception isn’t one of them.

“What’s that?” Sheila says as her index finger points at a tiny light green polygon.

I almost missed that; I must be more careful. I study Taylor’s expression. She seems to be holding up okay, for now.

“Let’s see,” I say. I place my two fingers on the indicated green patch and slowly spread them apart.

It seems odd for digitized rural maps to be detailed, but God bless Mr. and Mrs. Google — this map is good enough to be workable.

The legend says ‘Norse Sanitarium (def).’

“What’s def mean?” Tommy says.

“Defunct,” Taylor says. “It means it’s no longer in business.”

We look at the tiny screen of her iPhone like it has more secrets to reveal to us stranded as we are; we are all looking for a savior now, even dear old dad.

“Sanitarium? That’s like where crazy people go?” Tommy says.

Taylor winces at her brother’s faux pas.

Oh, to be a human in an age of ever-increasing political correctness. It’s sticky for me sometimes; I grew up in the ’60s, but I recognize the compassion behind the idea, and we are firm with our kids when it comes to these ideals.

“Mentally troubled,” Sheila gently corrects our youngest son. Tommy nods once, acknowledging his momentary lapse.

But having said it, it’s now out there. Sure, we can dress it up and soften it with gentler, sensitive labels such as ‘mentally troubled,’ but Tommy’s right. Norse is a place that catered and housed insane people against their will; it was a criminal correction facility for the mentally ill.

A place that housed violently insane people, for the duration of the snowstorm or until my family is out of danger — I vow not to correct my son for saying the word ‘crazy.’

“Huh, we must have hiked past it on our way here,” Sheila says. “It’s just a quarter of a mile or so west of the trail, just past that little stream we crossed, remember?”

No time like the present.

“Okay, gang, let’s do this,” I say as I fish a segment of rope out of a side pocket on my pack.

“I’ll go first; mom will bring up the rear. Tommy, you’re between mom and Taylor, got it?”

I loop the line around each of our waists.

“You’ve not hiked in a whiteout blizzard, Tommy. Taylor has, but she was four; she probably doesn’t remember how dangerous and scary it was.”

It was. I’m surprised we ever picked up our packs again after that debacle.

Taylor looks like she might remember it.

“When it gets bad, you won’t be able to see more than three front in front of you. I’m sure that sounds like hyperbole.., like an exaggeration, but I promise you, it is not. So rule one is ‘DO NOT LET GO OF THE ROPE.’ If you fall, scream to the person before you or behind you but don’t let go. We clear on that?”

I hear yeses from everyone. Then we set off.

We each sigh with relief when Norse comes into view. The blizzard was harrowing, but I’m pretty solid when it comes to orienteering. Even without Taylor’s phone, I instinctively remembered enough of the terrain to get my family there during an honest-to-God whiteout blizzard.

“Nice going, Dad,” my kids say to me in unison.

“Yeah, good, job honey,” Sheila says to me.

“Well, I would love to celebrate, make an acceptance speech, but maybe we could postpone the festivities until we’re inside, eh?”

“This will do nicely for a day, possibly two, you agree?” I ask my family.

“This was probably a shrink’s, I mean psychiatrist’s office,” I say, wincing at Sheila.

She ignores my slip.

“Can we explore the place, dad?” Tommy asks.

I was hoping we would sleep. I’m not anxious to see the rest of this place. Something my kids don’t know is that my mother ended up in a place like this. Not for incarcerated convicts, but an insane asylum. I have a fear of these places.

Must keep up appearances. That sounds okay, but let’s vote on it.” Trying to get us back into our default democratic mode of operations.

“I’m game,” Taylor says. I don’t know what I saw in her face earlier, but I may have underestimated my daughter.

The building is much larger than I’d anticipated. Finally, we come to the cell blocks.

It’s dark, of course, and the building is creaking more than I’d like. We are probably two hundred yards from where we dropped our packs in Dr. Fineman’s office (we found a plaque bearing his name before leaving).

Something has been nagging me since we left that office. Something has gotten into my mind and not left once without ever identifying what it was.

I look at my family then.

Sheila has her scarf off and is holding her cap and gloves in her hand. My flashlight cuts a path through the air. I can see their breath in the beam, but it’s subtle.

Then it hits me; it’s too warm in here. It’s March. It’s been winter for months, and it was in the ’30s (or colder) for weeks, so how is it that we are walking around in here like it’s forty-five or even fifty degrees?

I feel panic rising.

That’s when we hear the screech of a cell door opening at the end of the long dark aisle we are exploring. It sounded like it came from just ahead of us.

If we carried a weapon, it would be in our packs. But our backpacks are in Dr. Fineman’s office. Besides, liberals that we are, we are unarmed pacifists. Well, that’s not entirely true. I would kill to protect anyone of the three people behind me.

“We should maybe get back,” Taylor says nervously.

I hear no objections, And I suspect our democracy is undergoing another temporary suspension. I want to be in front when we return, but the screech came from in front of us, so I should stay here if there’s danger from that direction. Right?

That’s when Taylor notices what I noticed.

“Dad, why is it so warm in here?”

That’s when she steps forward, my mother. Her jaw juts forward ambitiously from the rest of her face.

But she died. I remember standing in the cold February rain, underdressed for the weather and desperately, guiltily wanting the ceremony to be over.

But then it gets worse. As the ghosts surround us, I think of my family. I’m struggling to protect them from this, but I keep thinking of Taylor and her scholarship. Now, I’m sure she will never attend Vassar. If she studies anywhere, I fear it will be in cell block H.

The ghosts approach us.

Stupidly, I say, “Vassar.”

Incredibly, the ghosts stop at this. Then, even more unexpectedly, they begin to laugh hysterically.

Originally published on on August 5, 2021.

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