"The Gap" by Mikal Trimm
December 2011 Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine
Third Person, Chronological
Summary [WARNING: Spoilers Included!]:
A man wakes up outside in a snowy area, unaware of where he is or what has recently happened to him other than that he took some kind of blow to the head. He begins to remember pieces of what came before. There was a car accident and he went off the road. He is in a large valley, surrounded by mountains. Looking around, he sees that he had been walking in a straight line before he passed out. He doesn't remember where he was going at that point but determines it must have been important. When a passing cloud cuts down on the glare, he sees that there is a small gap in the mountains in the direction of his previous footsteps. He decides to set out in that direction, though the only thing he can think of that explains what he was trying to do is a single word: "skates."
Snow clouds gather as he walks toward the gap. He begins to despair, but remembers that his ex-wife was expecting him to be somewhere, and remembers -- or feels -- that he had promised to be wherever that was. He finds shelter in a dead tree and has to stay alert to avoid falling asleep, something which he is sure would be fatal. Suddenly, the tree collapses. He manages to extract himself from the ruined tree and pile of snow by digging out with a loose branch that had gouged into his leg. Though bleeding, he continues to venture on, having remembered that it is not just his ex-wife who is expecting him to be somewhere but their daughter as well.
He keeps going and hours later finds himself in the gap. He still can't see any real signs of life, but there may be a road a bit further on. Again, his mind dredges up the word "skates" but this time it triggers a further memory. There were skates in the car when he crashed. His daughter's skates. She had taken them off and left them on the floorboard. One of them hit him in the head during the crash, before something else injured him further. He realizes that he's been inadvertently walking away from his daughter for hours. He turns away from the gap and begins to retrace his steps.
One of the things that drew me to select this story for analysis was how atypical it is for the magazine. Not that it felt out of place, but it does not have many of the elements which otherwise go into stories in this publication. No crime has been committed, no detective (professional or amateur) or police characters are involved, and it's entirely possible that no one is dead. (Admittedly, that last requires a bit of optimism, but stranger things have happened.) It's described by the magazine as a "suspense" story and that's a fair characterization. Certainly there is a "mystery" as to where he was going before passing out and why, and the story builds a fair amount of suspense. I think this story could have easily fit in a non-genre magazine without seeming out of place.
The story itself is heavy on place and character. In fact, you could argue that it's a story with two characters -- the protagonist, our main character and the antagonist, the environment. It's not explicitly stated, but I take the accident to have been caused by an avalanche based on this description:
"A great white hand, like that of an angry God, coming down to slap him with the speed of Divine Retribution.Assuming that is correct, then everything which happens is a direct result of environmental factors. The original accident, the snowstorm, the collapse of his hiding place.
[...] The road trembling, the tires on his Land Cruiser skidding sideways as if they were made of polished wood instead of high-density rubber..."
The main character has discussions with himself throughout the story (set apart from the overall narration of the story with italics) which illustrate his own voice and character. The very first of these establishes a sardonic point of view for the character:
"He woke up cold, blind, and in pain. The pain he felt first, then the cold; the blindness he noticed afterward, when he tried to determine the causes of the first two.One of the other aspects of the story which was notable was some musing about luck which the main character undertakes. When he found the damaged tree to hide out in during the storm he thought that it:
He wiped a numb hand across his face -- numb, add that to the catalog -- and a thin rime of ice broke off his eyelids."
"seemed to represent the kind of luck found only in crooked dice games and bad novels. On the other hand, the fact that he was out here fending off Nature in the first place implied a lack of luck so enormous that it, too, seemed manufactured."That passage first struck me as being almost a bit of authorly winking at the audience with its reference to "bad novels" and "manufactured" luck. (Note also the explicit reference to him "fending off Nature.") Just a few paragraphs later, though, it ends up being relevant to the broader story dealing with the main character's family. Thinking about an argument with his ex-wife, he remembers having wanted to tell her:
"[...] you can't believe my luck, every time I turn around something happens that just destroys any plans I've made, turns everything upside-down and leftways-right, and none of it is my fault!"While we don't know if this was indeed true of past incidents in his life, it certainly seems a fair description of what is happening in this story. (And this is before the tree branch impales his leg.) So, clearly, "luck" is something that he has felt played a significant role throughout his life.
Did The Story Work For Me?
Very much so. I was kept wondering throughout the story where it was going. The revelation at the end did not feel particularly "surprising" so to speak, but this may be in part because it was handled in a very low-key fashion. The main character does not get panicked or hysterical, he simply turns around and starts walking back towards the scene of the accident. The ending certainly made sense and was of a piece with the rest of the story. While this isn't typical fare for the magazine, I'm glad they published it as I enjoyed reading it.
Thanks for following along! As always, if you've read this story and have comments, I'd love to hear them. I know that many people don't purchase these magazines and this has made having a dialogue about my analysis difficult. While I still will feature stories from these digests heavily, I am going to start including the occasional story from on-line venues which meet the following criteria: 1) The story I select is free to read, so anyone who wants to read along can do so with no cost other than their time and 2) The venue pays professional rates and accepts unsolicited submissions. I think that this is consistent with the vision I set out initially for this series of posts and I hope it will allow at least a few of them to have more active discussion in the comments section.