Survivor or Savior?

Author: Taylor Adams

Darby Thorne’s world has been turned upside down. She’s never been the best daughter, the best person. And now, it’s probably too late. She’s speeding through the night in her beat-up Honda, phone charger forgotten, no snow tires, trying to get to her dying mother’s bedside in time to say goodbye, to say that she is sorry.

As the record-breaking snowstorm increases, Darby is forced to pull over at an unknown rest stop. She cannot go any further. She cannot get a cell signal. She cannot even find out if her mother is still alive. Darby is stuck with a pot of tepid rest stop coffee and four shifty strangers. It will be the longest night of her life.

As Darby walks around the eerie, abandoned parking lot, trying to get a signal, she passes a van, barely snow covered. In the van’s back window, she sees a child’s hand. There is a girl back there, one in a cage. One of the people at the rest stop with Darby is a monster, a kidnapper and perhaps something worse. Darby must be very careful now. Careful to rescue the girl, careful to not get herself and the other people at the rest stop killed. But who could the abductor be? Who can she trust here, and what can she do with no weapon, no way to escape, and no way to call for help?

No Exit had me on tenterhooks from the beginning. We start with a thrumming tension, in a car not meant for the elements, ice churning under slipping wheels, losing purchase. The windshield is filling with blinding snow, and Darby’s leaking eyes and wondering mind are not helping. Panic, horror, and ineffable sadness make everything surreal, dangerous. We feel for Darby. We feel with her. It seems, in our limited experience, that there is always time to make things right, to fix relationships, and yet life often proves otherwise. We’re with Darby in her disorientation, her desperation, her relentless self-accusations. The guilt, the fear, the desperation: it’s all palpable. It’s also only the beginning.

Image by Declan Hobley from Pixabay

When Darby arrives at the rest stop, the ordinariness of these transitory locations contrasts nicely with the isolation, the nascent paranoia. These are places meant to pass on the way through. They are nameless places that all look the same, that all sell the same vending machine food, that all have the same tired brochures. Yet now, this place takes on a darker tone. These anonymous places are perfect for hiding, are the brief, shifting scenes of unknown, untold horrors. There is a child in a freezing car, in a cage outside, and here Darby is, stranded with strangers, one of whom is a monster. It’s a moment that breeds suspicion. Will Darby lose her chance to see her mother again to save this girl? Will she risk her life? Does she even have an option, now that she knows, now that she has seen?

The rest of the story follows as Darby tries to form a plan and figure out who she can trust. It goes from creepy to thriller as the stakes increase and as the abductor becomes aware. A cat-and-mouse game begins, trust is found and lost, the storm grows worse. Darby is forced to reconcile her aloneness with dwindling time and limited options. It’s fight or flight, but she can’t leave. And so, we go from plotting to face paced action, all the time with our hearts in our collective throats, with the danger increasing, with the revelations hot and heavy. Can anyone be trusted? In nameless places on dark highways, is there any form of help?

No Exit was addicting, smart, well executed. We’re already bonded to Darby before the discovery and we’re with her, trying to plot, trying to outsmart the abductor while still in the throes of grief. The desire to save someone, especially a child, juxtaposed with the sense of self-preservation and the overwhelming nature of the unfolding events creates both an emotional and intellectual pull, a connection that stays strong as events escalate. Some of Darby’s choices are bad, but many make sense, many fit in, taking this story to an entirely new level. And just as you think you know what is going to happen, everything changes. At the end of this night of terror, Darby will never be the same, and neither will the breathless readers.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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