Survival Instincts: A Novel

Survival Instincts: A Novel

by Jen Waite


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By the bestselling author of A Beautiful, Terrible Thing, a haunting thriller about a mother and daughter who must draw strength from each other when they find themselves trapped in a cabin with a stranger who wants to either control them—or kill them.

FOURTEEN YEARS BEFORE THE CABIN: Twenty-something Anne meets the man of her dreams right out of college, but after they get married, Anne notices that her husband begins acting differently. Why is Ethan suddenly so moody? And will their marriage endure?

A WEEK BEFORE THE CABIN: Ten years later, Anne and her twelve-year-old daughter, Thea, are safely living in Vermont. Anne is a successful therapist, Thea has friends at her new school, and they receive an endless stream of love, support, and baked goods from Anne's sweet mom, Rose. When Thea takes to brooding and showing classic signs of teen angst, a trip for the three women to the White Mountains of New Hampshire seems like the perfect chance to bond.

THE CABIN: A man follows the three women on a hike at a nature reserve and drags them at gunpoint to an abandoned cabin in the woods. And just like that their peaceful weekend away turns into a fight for survival. It isn't clear what this man wants from these women or how he is connected to them if at all, but it is increasingly clear that they won't all get out of the cabin alive.

SURVIVAL INSTINCTS is a captivating and terrifying novel that brings to life one of the scariest truths of all—that people's inner monsters come in various forms, some more recognizable than others, and that we are all one random encounter away from tragedy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781524745837
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/14/2020
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 611,668
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Jen Waite grew up on the coast of Maine. After graduating from Vassar College she moved to New York City for ten years, where she first worked in finance and then pursued acting and modeling. She moved back to Maine in 2015 shortly after the birth of her daughter, Vivienne. She is the author of the international bestseller, A Beautiful, Terrible Thing which details the discovery that her ex-husband was leading a double life. Since the memoir's publication, Jen has worked with many women (and a few men) who have experienced similar betrayals. She is currently at work on her second novel.

Read an Excerpt



The day Anne decided to go to the cabin was also the day she took Thea clothes shopping at the mall. Her daughter's pants didn't fit; the size twelves, the ones she had just bought because Thea had grown out of her size elevens, rode up around her ankles. Thea, long and lean and all arms and legs, like a colt, was growing so quickly these days that her age no longer correlated with her size.

"Do you like these?" Anne asked, holding up a pair of bright yellow stretch pants. Sometimes she could lead her daughter with the tone she used. Lilting up at the end-"Do you like these?"-and a touch of excitement in her voice. Thea barely glanced before responding, "Ew," and shifting her eyes toward a gumball machine near the entrance of the store. It didn't always work, the lilt.

They wandered around the store, a coffee in Anne's hand, a smoothie in Thea's, with the leisurely, aimless gait reserved for a half-empty American shopping mall. It was Tuesday afternoon, and Anne had scheduled her last client for the 1:00-1:50 p.m. slot. Afterward, she picked up Thea from school early and they'd gone straight to the mall, a move she'd hoped would spare them from the after-work crowd-the crowd that Anne was usually lumped in with-parents hell-bent on accomplishing last-minute shopping, dragging their kids from store to store, tinged with frantic desperation. The move had worked; the mall was nearly empty when they arrived.

"Ok, well, let's hurry up and find some stuff you like." Anne switched to her best authoritative mom voice. "School is letting out soon; it's going to get crowded in here." And turn into the tenth circle of hell, she thought, scanning the entrance as teenagers started to ooze in; high school kids skipping last class or the entire school day. She watched a girl and a boy, who couldn't be older than fourteen, dart their tongues in and out of each other's mouths and caress each other's facial piercings. Anne let out an audible grunt of disgust. Do your parents know where you are? The teenage girl was wearing a shirt that looked like a bra and the boy wore pants that sagged down almost to his knees, revealing yellowed boxer shorts. Anne swiveled her eyes down her own body: white button-up shirt, gray trousers, sensible black flats. She touched the edge of her head, tucking stray brown hairs into the bun at the nape of her neck. She looked back to the girl and boy, laughing into each other's mouths. What a curmudgeon you've become. "Hey, sweets, off your phone." She plucked Thea's twelfth birthday present, an older generation iPhone, out of her daughter's fingers and dropped it into her purse. So much for being less curmudgeon-ey.

"Mom!" Thea glared as if she'd just been sentenced to a week of collecting litter on the highway.

Anne smiled back. "Focus, Thee."

Anne ran her fingers along a rack of embroidered blouses and her thoughts shot forward to tonight; after dinner was made, homework was done, and Thea was tucked into bed with her night-light and a Nancy Drew Mystery (Anne's old set that Thea had looked at skeptically, eyeing the wilted pages and dusty spines, but now was on the fifth book in the series), she would put on comfy pj's and thick socks, pour herself a glass of wine, build a fire in the living room, and sink into the sofa. They'd been moved into the new house for six months now-an old white farmhouse set on six acres of land-but she hadn't had time to throw a housewarming or even veg out with a glass of wine. She was still getting used to the vastness of the new house, all the open space, creaking wood floors, and bare walls. There was so much still to furnish and decorate; tonight, she told herself, she would just enjoy it. This was what she had been working toward, after all, for the past eight years.

She had opened her private therapy practice five years ago, after completing a three-year master's program, in Charlotte, Vermont, a quiet town that bordered Lake Champlain. When she opened her doors, she didn't have a single client, only a handful of friends who promised to pass the word and the hope that there were others who were looking for a light in the dark. The first few years she steadily built her clientele, eventually moving from a sparse white office off a dirt road into a beautiful brick building in the center of town, which housed the services of other mental health professionals. And she found that she had guessed correctly-there was no shortage of people seeking help in disengaging and healing from abusive relationships, even in a little Vermont town. Six months ago, to coincide with Thea starting sixth grade, Anne had made another leap-moving herself, her practice, and her daughter to Burlington, where she could charge twice the amount per hour and (she hoped) begin a new chapter. At $120.00 per fifty-minute session, and her client list steadily growing, Anne was doing well, very well; the new house with four bedrooms, hardwood floors throughout, and three fireplaces was physical proof of how far she'd come. It would be even more satisfying if her daughter hadn't changed so drastically in the past few weeks, from a kind, inquisitive, horse-obsessed kid into an angsty, volatile preteen. At first, Thea seemed genuinely happy and excited to start fresh; she loved Burlington, she raved about her school and the small group of friends she'd made (three other nerdy, kind, wonderfully weird girls), and she talked incessantly about how much cooler the teachers were at her new school. But about a month ago, something changed. Anne still saw glimpses of the Thea she knew, but her daughter's under-the-breath comments and disdain for everything, especially Anne, seemed to be increasing daily. Anne tried to remember what age she'd gone through this phase and could have sworn it was much, much later than twelve years old.

Pulling her own phone from her purse, Anne watched Thea sort through a pile of jeans. The idea of going away for the weekend had started to sprout that morning when she and Thea had fought, once again, about the no-social-media-until-you're-eighteen rule. Her daughter had said that she was worse than Voldemort, to which Anne had replied, "I believe you mean He Who Must Not Be Named." Thea had not thought that was funny.

Anne was aware of the irony that she felt completely at ease, even masterful sometimes, empowering her clients to form healthy boundaries and to break free from toxic relationships, but when confronted with the fact that her twelve-year-old daughter seemed to be developing a hatred for everything Anne said and did, she reacted like a teenager herself, awkward and insecure. She had done some quick research at work in between clients and an idea had begun to blossom: a girl's getaway.

She scrolled through the Airbnb listings now, looking for the one that had caught her eye earlier. The main picture showed a log cabin nestled in snow, smoke billowing out the top. A deck protruded off the back with sparkling white Christmas lights lining the railing. The title proclaimed "Your White Mountain Getaway!" She clicked to a picture of the interior-a roaring woodstove on a brick hearth surrounded by big, plush couches (if Thea happened to see the massive flat-screen TV mounted to the wall behind the woodstove, so be it). Anne was about to ask Thea what she thought about a trip to the cabin in a few weeks when she had a thought.

She brought up her messages and texted Rose: Thinking of weekend getaway to White Mountains with T . . . It's been a few weeks since we've seen you. Would you want to come? She threw in a couple of smiley faces and one kiss face. If Anne's close relationship with Thea had become strained recently, Thea's relationship with Rose, Anne's mother, had only continued to blossom. It had been hard on Thea, at first, not being able to see Rose daily, but Rose visited once a month and called Thea every Tuesday night; tonight Anne would hear Thea's giggles echoing down the hallway from her bedroom. Rose spoke in soft, soothing tones and had a different baked good for every one of life's problems. Literally. Her mother owned a bakery in town called Rose's Sweets. Rose and Thea used to have tea parties with baked bread that Rose would bring home fresh from the bakery oven. If Rose weren't Anne's own mother, Anne would resent how naturally motherhood came to her, especially with Thea.

Anne imagined Rose padding around the kitchen of her parents' house, grabbing her favorite blue fired-clay mug (her fingers brushing briefly against her dad's favorite whiskey glass, collecting dust) from the open shelves, and standing in the soft sunlight as she poured her third cup of coffee of the afternoon. She'd have been up since three a.m.-even on her days off, her body was stuck on bakery time. Rose's reply came almost instantly: Wow! When are you thinking?! Sounds like fun! Count me in! I can't wait!

Anne wrote back: That's a lot of exclamation points! Maybe in a few weeks when it gets warmer? Mid-April? and then backtracked the message, clicking delete with her thumb while balancing the two shirts and pair of leggings that Thea was loading into her arms.

She looked at the listing again. From the looks of the booking calendar, late March was off-season in the small ski village of Loon, New Hampshire. She watched Thea, weaving through a rack of shirts, laughing with her whole face when a shirt fell off its hanger onto her head; for a second Thea was two years old, draping a blanket over her head in plain view, You can't find me, Mama.

She wrote: What about this weekend?



It was raining as Thea wrote in her diary, a small white journal with an actual lock that clasped over the front and a tiny key that she kept in a jar on her bedside table. Big, fat drops of rain splattered against her windows, making her feel even more melancholy, but in a good way, as if the weather had decided to validate her pain. She glanced around her new room, pausing in her scribbling to bring the pen up to her mouth. She nibbled absentmindedly on the end of the pen, already chewed down to a shriveled stump, and watched the rain fall harder outside. A few seconds ago, there had been a deep rumbling of thunder and the big, fat drops had given way to a torrential stream of water that cascaded past her windows. Thea shivered even though the windows were shut, sealed tight against the rain and wind. Although she hated her mother, she liked the new house, and she especially loved her new room. After a moment of staring at the soft blue walls and listening to the rain, she continued to write: I used to love three people with all my heart. And now I have only Mimi and him. How could my own mother do this to me?

Thea put the pen down, satisfied with the end of her journal entry, and stretched out in bed, laying her head against a cool, fluffy white pillow. She closed her eyes, listening to the rain hit the windows like a firehose and feeling hot tears roll down her cheeks, down her chin, and pool on her neck. Her mother would be calling her down for breakfast soon and Thea couldn't decide if she wanted her mother to finally see her anger, her sadness, or if she wanted to keep it hidden, so that it could burn and grow. The longer she kept it a secret, the more impossible it felt to confront her mom. And what could her mother even say to make it better at this point anyway? Thea inhaled shakily and, to keep from crying, tried to focus on the blue wall across from her, but her throat ached and her mouth trembled downward. She finally put her face into her pillow and screamed. When she lifted her head, she took a deep, shaky breath and sat up.

"Thee," she heard her mom's voice drifting up from the bottom of the stairs. "Honey, breakfast is almost ready." A pause and then: "I don't hear the shower yet. It's been a couple of days, baby. Please wash your hair. Come on, let's go, let's go, let's go."

Thea snorted. Her mother was always doing that. Preempting. Like she knew Thea was going to lag. Like she couldn't even give her a chance before annoyance and impatience crept into her voice. Well, fine, Thea thought and crossed her arms. I'll take my time. She laid her head back against the pillow and closed her eyes until she heard "THEA. Let's GO! We're going to be late for school again. In the shower." And then, as if she just couldn't help herself, "Now!"

Thea groaned and slowly moved her limbs out of bed and quickly stripped off her fleece pajama bottoms and a gray long-sleeve top, almost threadbare from the frequency with which she wore it. She shivered as the cold air pricked her skin, tiptoeing on the balls of her feet into the small bathroom off her bedroom, touching as little surface of the cold tile floor as possible. She pulled the glass door open and turned the silver knob all the way to the left, toward the H, and then waited for the telltale steam to fog the shower door. While she waited, she leaned her elbows on the marble countertop and glanced into the mirror hanging directly opposite, suddenly shocked by her own reflection, by the sameness of it; her physical appearance hadn't changed at all-the same light blue eyes and straight blond hair reflected back at her-and yet everything inside her was different. She stared for another moment and then stepped into the stream of water, gasping with a painful pleasure as the water seared her skin. Thea swung the shower door shut and stood in the burning stream of water with her eyes closed for several seconds. When she opened her eyes, she saw only fog at first. Little by little, her eyes adjusted, and the glass door came back into view, now completely opaque. Without thinking, she traced a shape into the condensation with her pointer finger. And then, this time purposefully, traced her initials and his initials, above and below the heart. She watched as another layer of fog slowly formed, creeping over her drawing, whitewashing it away. It was fitting, she thought, like the relationship itself, invisible to the naked eye, etched just below the surface. Her initials faded first, TT, and then his, TR.

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