“I am going to die,” Laura said in a low, shaking voice.
“It’s skiing. Not BASE jumping. You aren’t cage fighting. You’re riding down a tiny slope on skis.” Mike sighed. People let their fear get in the way of the exhilarating push down a mountain. The control, the easy glide, the heart-pumping challenge of the slopes—nothing was better.
Well, sex was better. And fatherhood. And love. But aside from those…
“Death on sticks,” she grumbled.
Try as he might, he couldn’t get her off the bunny slope. This was a source of endless teasing from his staff. When Mike had been “just” a ski instructor here for all those years, he’d had a reputation for being the only instructor who could teach anyone, and have them up on the lower trails within hours.
Fear? Fear had no place in skiing. Yet Laura was the hardest student he’d ever faced in well over a decade of teaching on the slopes.
“Laura,” he whispered in her ear, “there’s no reason to be afraid. Worst case, you fall. And we’ve practiced falling.”
“You’ve practiced falling. I’ve just actually fallen. Over and over.” She eyed the bunny slope with trepidation. Someone had put small barrels out to help new skiers to handle turns.
He couldn’t help but laugh. That just made her scowl. She looked adorable with her ski goggles, white jacket, and tight white pants. Her golden hair peeked out from under a knit hat, and a white helmet with purple stripes topped her head.
A pink nose poked out from under her goggles. It wasn’t cold enough for a balaclava, and the new powder made this a perfect day to spend hours out here instead of chained to a desk. Dylan was in the lodge, playing with Jillian in the new Kid’s Korner they’d installed shortly after she was born. The added playroom pulled in a lot of parents of small children, and by letting one couple share a single ski lift pass, he’d gained a huge following among parents of little kids.
And why not? He, Dylan, and Laura knew how hard it was. Firsthand. When Mike watched the parents of two little ones come in, he always smiled. A bit wistfully. Jillian was pulling up now, and that meant she would walk soon, babyhood fading.
Maybe she needed a sibling.
He hadn’t said those words to anyone. Those were words that were very, very dangerous. Yet he knew they needed to be said one day.
Just not yet.
“I am going to snap a knee and it will be your fault,” Laura said in a tight voice as she looked down the puny hill. Before she could say anything else, Mike took the little bunny slope in ten seconds and cut at the bottom, sending an intentional spray of snow out like a giant fan.
“Showoff!” she called from above.
He couldn’t argue. “That’s right! And you’ll get to my level soon enough.” A lie. A complete lie, but he said it anyway because he knew that half the battle with becoming a competent skier was in the mind.
“LIAR!” she screamed down the hill. A four year old whizzed past her and gave her a thumbs up, doing a credible imitation of Mike’s maneuver and filling Mike’s mouth with snow.
Deep, loud laughter came out of him, the feeling coming from the bottom of his lungs, a release his body needed. “Awesome! High five!” The little kid shimmied over to him and jumped up on the skis to land a high five, then skittered off, bent over in that crouched way kids with lower centers of gravity had. No poles, either; Mike taught the young ones that way. Made them less dependent on the poles and—more pragmatically—less likely to poke themselves or anyone else.
“You’re both showoffs!” Laura called down.
She planted her hands on her hips and shook her head, then put the poles down. Her legs went into snowplow position—like an inverted V—and he groaned. She was still stuck at that level.
And then she pushed off, and to his surprise she pulled out a bit from the V, keeping the skis parallel as she slowly descended, her calves turning enough, tight muscles working to get around the first barrel. Good! Then she managed the second and third like a pro, gaining speed.
“Good speed!” he called out. The shout unnerved her, he could see, and he regretted it instantly. No longer in control of her legs, her core muscles and arms didn’t give her enough balance, and he could predict, with pinpoint precision, what would happen next.
Once you let fear take over, the muscles freak out and aim for what they know. When you’re in a situation so unfamiliar, and gliding on snow on wooden sticks in a body that’s only done it a handful of times, there is no easy “normal,” so the muscles go crazy and the brain can only see one option.
Get on safe ground.
Except you can’t, because falling on skis has its own set of dangers.
And so panic hits, control abates, and you just—crash.
Laura made it to the bottom of the hill and Mike skied quickly to her, to try to break her fall, but she crashed smack into the orange construction netting his staff had placed there to stop kids (and adults) from sliding off into the abyss and snowballing down into a culvert.
Suppressing a smile, he stood over her and said quietly, “You did a great job until the end.”
“Oh,” she groaned. The same word she used sometimes during sex sounded nothing like its aroused form. “I think I broke something.”
Alarm shot through him and he looked up for a medical responder. “Leg? Wrist?”
Adrenaline burst through him as her self-deprecating laughter clued him in that she was safe and unhurt. “Don’t joke like that!” He bent down and began untangling her ski from the orange mesh. “How did you manage to get the ski through three separate holes?”
“I’m talented that way,” she grumbled, settling on her back, right leg twisted in a suspicious manner as Mike worked on the left leg. Seeing her in repose, eyes hidden by amber goggles but lips spreading in a sheepish grin, made him love her even more.
Trying. She was trying to join him in his world, his love of skiing, and he loved her for it. His gloves were in the way of unraveling the mesh, so he pulled them off and she reached out to hold them.
“I think we need to pop off your skis and figure out the rest.”
“Good.” She laughed. “You do that and I’ll hobble over to the lodge for a latte.”
“No way,” he said firmly. “You need to own this hill before I let you take a break.”
“I will dominate the bunny slope! I have the power!” she shouted, tipping her head back as he stood and reached down to pull her up.
“You can’t handle the bunny slope?” a kid with a snowboard said, pushing past. Twelve or thirteen, Mike guessed, a light sprinkling of pimples on the part of the face not covered by goggles or helmet. His voice dripped with condescension.
“What?” Laura joked back, not letting him get to her. Mike admired that. “I own the bunny slope. Watch out! Bunny slope today, Chuck E. Cheese climbing structure tomorrow. I will dominate!” The kid shook his head and glided off, one foot hooked into the snowboard bindings, the other pushing himself to the ski lift.
“Double black diamond for me!” he shouted back.
“You can have it!” Laura responded, then looked at Mike. Without thinking, he reached down to kiss her, their goggles clanking against each other, pain shooting through his brow and ears.
“Ow!” she said, giggling. Both pulled their respective goggles up over their helmets and the kiss was awkward. Heartfelt, but awkward.
“What was that for?” she asked.
“For joining my world.”
“Well, then, thank you,” she replied.
“For rocking mine.”