“Jesus taught me how to ski,” the kid in the bright orange ski pants said to the middle-aged lady next to me on the chairlift.
She barked a sharp but friendly laugh. “You mean Haysus, don’t you? Didn’t know they had a Latino ski instructor up here.” She waved a hand toward the day lodge, the bright lights for night skiing casting shadows on the run below us.
“No bullshit,” the kid insisted, pushing his goggles up onto his camouflage ski helmet. “Jesus. No Latino guy, the real thing. As in Jesus the Christ. The Son of God.”
“Come on,” the lady bantered. “You can’t convince me of that chunk of blarney, Thomas.”
“No, really, Mrs. K. Jesus’s a ski instructor up here. How else did I learn to ski so well in two seasons?” Thomas scratched the scraggly soul patch on his chin.
“You’re a natural athlete, kiddo,” Mrs. K said, shaking her head. “Even if you are full of BS.”
“For real, Mrs. K!”
“Tell me another one, Thomas. I might just believe it.”
We approached the ramp. Mrs. K put up the bar, sliding off easily with Thomas and turning left while I turned right. I kept an eye on the kid as they headed down the run ahead of me. Both skied with the lithe grace of experienced skiers who could pick up the flow of the slope and the fall line with the greatest of ease. I stopped in front of two fir trees, the front one with the top freshly snapped off, to watch Thomas and Mrs. K as they approached the terrain park.
Mrs. K avoided the first rail but stopped downslope from it. The kid did a 180 and started skiing switch, gliding backward down the black diamond slope without a pause, glancing back to keep track of the rail. He rode the rail gracefully, then dismounted with another 180 and raced after Mrs. K.
I shook my head and prepared to follow them down the easier slope that angled off next to the terrain park. Jesus the ski instructor. Heard a lot from kids, but that? Mountain kids learned to ski quickly, especially if they had any athletic talent.
The faint scrape of metal edge on snow followed by a surprised warning Yelp! startled me. I looked up to see a big burly man careening in my direction, skis fixed in a snowplow wedge, sliding downhill far too fast for an easy stop. Before I could move away, he rammed me hard, sending me flying onto the sharp points of the broken tree, leaving me with just enough time to regret not wearing a helmet before blacking out.
It hurt like hell when I woke, lying on the snow next to the trees. The guy bending over me wore a red jacket — instructor jacket or ski patrol, I wasn’t sure which. Icicles from the light snowfall crusted the ends of the reddish-brown hair poking out from under his helmet.
“You all right?” he asked, and I realized I’d heard him repeating that question for several moments before I was actually conscious enough to register what he was saying. The night ski lighting seemed to create a halo around his head. “Are you all right?” he repeated.
“I hurt,” I said. “Hit my head, I think.” I waved a hand somewhere toward where I thought the tree might be. To my surprise, moving my arm didn’t hurt too badly.
He rested a bare hand on my head, and the pain lessened even more. For some reason I thought I saw a faint shadow of a divot in his wrist.
“He gonna be okay?” came from a harsher voice, much like the panicked yell from the guy who’d clobbered me.
“You got away with it, Pete. This time,” the red jacket guy said.
“JC, look, you promised me this would work!” Pete blubbered. “I didn’t want to hurt anyone.”
“I said it would work if you listened to me and did what I told you to do,” JC countered. “But no, you had to go and try this slope, see if you had a hand for tricking. I told you it wasn’t clear.”
“Didn’t think it was that hard,” Pete muttered.
“Yeah. Wasn’t that what you said about crucifixion?”
Pete grumbled and pushed up beside JC to look down at me. “Look, man, I’m sorry. I miscalculated. You gonna be okay? What’s your name?”
“His name’s Casey,” JC said.
My head was feeling better but I wasn’t quite sure I was hearing them correctly. I must have really rung my chimes when my head smacked that trunk.
“I think so,” I said slowly. I wiggled fingers, toes, and legs. All there. I ran my hands up and down my sides, surprised that my parka wasn’t ripped and that I didn’t have long pieces of wood sticking out of me. I did remember hitting those splinters, and a faint soreness suggested I’d remember it more tomorrow.
JC ran his fingers along my neck, then down my chest. “A few aches and pains, but nothing big. Don’t think we need to call for a backboard — good thing, Pete. Be hard to explain what we’re doing over on this run, because I’m not supposed to bring beginners over here. Why don’t you get Casey’s equipment, and I’ll put him back on his feet?”
Pete muttered assent, while JC turned to me and helped me sit up. Now I could see the name plaque on his coat — JC, no further details. Odd thing though. He still seemed to have a fuzzy halo around his head.
Pieces started to come together. Pete. I looked over at the burly guy gathering up my skis, shaking his head mournfully as he looked down at one bent pole, and a ski woefully out of camber. He had that faint glow about his head as well. I looked back at JC. He’d slid his goggles up on his head, and I could see faint marks across his forehead. Goggle imprint, or something else? I squinted, but still couldn’t make it clear. I began to doubt again.
“Up on the count of three,” JC said. “One-two-three!” He eased me up, with less effort than I expected.
Pete trudged up. “Dude, his skis are wrecked.” He offered up the ski bent the wrong way, along with the twisted pole.
JC made an annoyed sound and took the crooked ski. He pulled off his left glove and I spotted the shadow of that big divot in his wrist once again, before his parka slipped back over it.
“Pete, all it takes is a little twist and this stuff goes back into shape. It’s not rocket science.” He started to turn away from me.
“You taught that kid to ski, didn’t you!?” I blurted. “Thomas. He said Jesus taught him how to ski.”
Pete raised a brow at JC. “Thought you were going incognito, JC?”
JC scowled. “You know how kids are. Even hormonal, pubescent males with an eye for the girls. Can’t fool any of them. He guessed it right away.”
“The Old Man won’t like it. We’re not supposed to be coming back. Deities, saints, the works.”
JC shrugged and handed me my straightened ski, which looked better than ever. “He’s got his own shady history of sneaking down here and talking to folks in the desert all the time. We’ve got an agreement about me and skiing.”
“Kids.” Pete shook his head.
JC snorted and made no further pretense of what he was doing as he ran his hand down my ski pole. “There you are, Casey. Your equipment’s all fixed, you’re all fixed. Everything’s been made right. Consider it a little local anomaly for your troubles.”
“Thank you,” I said. “But hey — any chance I can sneak in a lesson?”
After all, if Jesus himself was in fact a ski instructor, what kind of lesson could he be teaching? As a self-respecting ski bum, I wasn’t going to pass up the chance.
Pete grinned at JC. “Gonna do it?”
JC shook his head ruefully. “The things I do,” He paused for a moment. “Sure, why not? One of you to get down this slope, two of you, what’s the difference?”
Pete laughed, and went to get his skis. JC and I snapped back into ours.
At first, the lesson was no different from any other I’d done with athletic beginners who learned skiing quickly. JC took us through the drills — poles lying vertical across our palms, facing our upper bodies downhill no matter which way we turned our hips and lower bodies. Then we whipped through the higher level drills, weight changes, quickly moving into pole plants and the next level of techniques.
Pete improved quickly from the rank beginner status capable of causing a wreck into a passable intermediate skier able to take on the black diamond runs at Treetop. My skills didn’t pick up quite as quickly as Pete’s but I still wasn’t looking too bad. For once I could feel the fall lines and how they flowed down the slope. The three of us fell into a smooth, rhythmic pattern as we played with gravity down the steepest lines we could find on the lit runs.
“This is addicting,” Pete panted at the top of one bowl that we’d hiked up, looking for unmarked snow. It was only slightly off of the beaten path. Even though this particular bowl wasn’t lit, the light reflecting from the low hanging clouds was enough for us to see our way down.
JC grinned at him. “Best invention yet, hmm?”
“Beats fishing in the Dead Sea or sheepherding any day. Gonna have to go talk to the Norse about this one. Sometimes those pagans come up with good ideas.”
I laughed and pushed off first.
About halfway down this bowl, suddenly the snow around me snapped, the loud crack of a slab avalanche. I tried to beat it, but the avalanche caught me, sucking me in at waist level, before it tumbled me down the slope in a flood of white. I couldn’t tell what was up or down as I rolled down the slope. One of my skis popped off and I lost track of my poles. I kept my hands in front of my face, trying to swim through the mass, fighting to keep a breathing space clear.
At last I came to a stop. I tried to move my arms and legs. Nothing. It was as if I were cast in icy cement. I could barely move my hands.
So this is how it ends , I thought.
Or was it? I clawed at the snow around me, enlarging my breathing space. If I were lucky, I’d only be a few inches under. As I worked through, I was able to free my arms and push them above my head — not that was any guarantee as to which end was up. But at least I had a decent breathing space carved out now.
Cold seeped through me. I wasn’t wearing an avalanche transponder. I hadn’t planned on skiing anywhere near an avalanche site. Yeah, I was skiing with JC and Pete, but who knew if they’d be able to find me? Or even — and this possibility struck me as I lay in the growing white cold — if it had all been a figment of my imagination? After all, there have been days when I could ski almost this well on my own.
What a stupid move.
On top of everything else, I started getting sleepy. Until now, I hadn’t realized how tired I was. The rhythm of a good night’s skiing kept me going. But now, my side ached, my head hurt, and the pain wasn’t enough to distract me from the growing drowsiness. Oh crap. Hypothermia. Shock. I didn’t dare give in. That’d lead to a final sleep.
At last I started murmuring a Rosary. Not much else to do. I went through several decades before my eyelids drooped, and my lips became heavy. At this point, the white stillness was mesmerizing. White was the color of death I decided, not black. And a white death seemed oddly comforting and satisfying.
I accepted the white, and passed under its curtain. Maybe I’d find out if tonight had been a dream, up until the avalanche.
I woke coughing and choking, and colder than the deepest frozen depths of Hell. JC’s hands on my shoulders were warm, and Pete’s hands on my legs were almost as warm.
“Touch and go there,” Pete said to JC.
“It’s not his time,” JC said. “You with us now, Casey?”
I nodded, not wanting to admit to the doubts that had crossed my mind.
Pete laughed softly. “Don’t worry about it, Casey. Everybody has doubts now and then. You’re looking at the King of second thoughts.”
“We didn’t find your stuff,” JC said. “But we’ll replace it for you.”
I shook my head. “Guys, I think it’s time to call it a night. I don’t want to make it three.”
“Enough for one night,” Pete agreed. “Let’s say we go to the Sasquatch Inn?”
“That dive?” I couldn’t believe what he had said.
J.C. grinned broadly. “Best kind. Good food, good drink, and good company.”
Pete guffawed and slapped me on the back. “Don’t believe the Old Man’s propaganda. We had a lot of fun parties in the old days. Still do, when we can. Even invite a few other deities into the game.” He winked at J.C.
“The water into wine is a dead giveaway, I’m afraid,” said J.C., rolling his eyes. “Doesn’t help that Loki has to switch it into mead every time.”
“He’s not on shift at the Squatch tonight, is he?” Pete scowled at J.C.
“Nah, I think his Old Man called him home on business. Haven’t seen Loki or Thor all season.”
“What are you talking about?” This whole situation was far too confusing.
“Don’t worry about it, Casey.” J.C. kicked out of his skis. “Tonight’s on us, and we’ve got a tab at the Squatch. Mary’ll slip us an extra pitcher, I’ve heard there’s swag getting handed out tonight, and maybe even a couple of X-Games medalists feeling frisky for a few bar games. You’ve had a blessed night, so let’s make it even better.”
I couldn’t argue with that. The only sweeter incentive could have been the presence of a lonely sponsor looking to fill a contract hole caused by someone else’s bad luck.
Not my night for that much luck.
But Pete and JC fed me up, got me drunk, and poured me into my bed at the inn.
Next morning, I woke slowly. I hurt a little bit, certainly not as much as I should have. And, miracle of miracles, I didn’t have a hangover!
But I sighed as I remembered my skis. I’d gotten rather fond of them. They’d taken me past the rank beginner up to a semi-confident intermediate who could tiptoe out on the easier blacks. And now-well, they were buried under the snow somewhere up in that anonymous bowl, and probably weren’t in skiable shape.
On the other hand, the sacrifice was well worth the experience.
I dragged myself out of bed. Then something caught my eye. Two pairs of skis rather like the ones JC and Pete had been riding last night leaned against the wall. I checked them out, stroking the topsheets, inspecting the bindings. One was a nice pair of twintips, just what I needed to try my new tricking skills. The other was a nice pair of all mountain fat skis, perfect for powder skiing. My size. I checked the DIN settings on the bindings. My setting.
Then I spotted the note on the table.
‘Hope these work to replace your skis. Good riding. JC.’
Below that, in a rougher hand—
‘Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.’
Pete hadn’t signed it, but I knew it was him.
I laughed, and went off to breakfast with a lighter heart. Maybe I’d get lucky and run into them again. But if not — well, it’d been worth it.
Thomas and Mrs. K sat at a table by the window, looking out on the street below, as I helped myself to the lavish continental breakfast our inn offered. Thomas looked away from Mrs. K, and our eyes met. We studied each other for a moment, and then he grinned and gave me a two-fingered wave. I waved back at him, then found a seat on my own, overseeing the slopes above the street.
It was, after all, another good ski day.
© 2014 by Joyce Reynolds-Ward
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