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Drama Fiction Thriller

               It was she who contacted me at the outset. I didn’t find it weird at the time. People still remember me as a one-time hopeful for the U.S. Alpine team, so, even in a somewhat obscure sport like Alpine skiing, from time to time, people approach me. It’s flattering, especially now that I’ve gotten older and slower. At my best, I lived, ate, and breathed skiing until the sport held no pleasure for me anymore. I became a machine, spending hours visualizing the turns and the carving, focused only on perfecting my technique. At that time, I longed for the days that I could ski for my own selfish pleasure, seeing the iridescent sparkle of crystals on the frozen crust of snow and the trees, their arms heavy with snow, knowing that if I picked the wrong line, no ill would come of it, for there were always things to see, and blood rushed through my veins whether I ran the fastest or not.

               She asked to join our golf foursome. She called me and told me that she was a big fan, and new to the area, and she wanted to learn to improve her ski technique. Maybe she could fill the place left by Annette? Annette was our fourth, but she had relocated to warmer climates. Sure, I said. After all, we weren’t too serious, and it would be nice to have a younger player with us. She was sweet, at the beginning. The first day of golf, she showed up in a brand-new matched Foray Golf outfit that Catherine had seen in the pro shop the week before. “She’s grasping,” Catherine had whispered in my ear while we waited for her to putt out. “You know I have no patience for that.”

               I brushed it off. Catherine’s word for people that try too hard is “grasping.” She finds it annoying that there are those who view our community as exclusive. They grasp at things that they hope will prove that they measure up, the right outfit, the right car, the right friends, so that they can belong. Truth be told, the new girl was grasping a bit, and, under normal circumstances, I had no patience for that either. We were fortunate enough in our circle of friends not to care about the trappings. Catherine’s own car was a Volvo from the 90s. None of us shopped for clothes at the pro shop. That would be too grasping for a bunch of friends who played golf together primarily for the opportunity to chat about the things that did matter to us.

               The new girl, April, was a little preoccupied. She asked questions about where our kids had gone to school, where we would go for vacation, and whether we wanted to come over for drinks. We did come over. And April’s home was always like a magazine spread, down to the last proper snack. But I couldn’t help but notice that it was also fake. I would catch sight of a price tag still attached to a perfect hand towel, or catch sight of a dumped out version of the same appetizer that we were eating, apparently a failed attempt that didn’t live up to expectations. This always made me feel a little depressed.

               I wished that April didn’t care so much. I tried to be more empathetic. Hadn’t we all been grasping at some point? I had poured myself into wanting to be an Olympic alpine skier, but that was really a type of grasping, too, wanting to be esteemed, valued, accepted. Ironically, it was only after my career as a skier fizzled to an end that I found satisfaction in pleasing myself rather than nameless crowds of others. A surprise gift of that experience: I finally was able to see, hear and feel instead of locking myself into the self-contained chamber of getting into my competitive “zone.” There were worlds of experience beyond preoccupation with competition.

               So when April asked to ski regularly with me when the season started, of course, I obliged. She was obsessed with the professionals. She told me that she had only started skiing late in life, but she followed all the greats. She read their Twitter and Instagram posts, and she even corresponded with them. I found this amusing. Even in my most competitive days, I was not so interested in what others did. April seemed to want the entire lifestyle, sporting her ski sunglasses out everywhere. I made it a point to wear casual sunglasses out. I didn’t really talk about the sport. I left it on the mountain and kept it separate from the rest of my life. Only my husband and closest friends knew the details of my heartbreak relationship with being a talented alpine skier. Not so with April. Being part of the alpine ski community was clearly where she wanted to be.

               We skied together for a few years, and April got better. She had even gotten me back into some competitions, after I’d sworn to myself that I’d never compete again. She liked to text me on the days before a competition. She was so excited, so enthusiastic, wishing me luck and sending me articles that were relevant to training and nutrition. She also competed, and did a good job, but she always seemed to have some kind of an interfering mishap that prevented her from following through. Once, she twisted her knee and was sidelined for a season. Another time, she developed frostbite and had to drop out. But in terms of friendship, there was no one more supportive.

               It was ironic then, that things developed as they did. I had rediscovered my love of challenging myself, and it was during one of my more challenging downhill runs that I felt a pop. I knew immediately that it was my meniscus and that it was torn. After a day or two of mourning, I saw the doctor. The news was no surprise. I’ve have to be off for at least eight weeks following reparative surgery. Depressing. Just when I rediscovered my taste for challenging myself, I was sidelined. Besides, I was older now. I worried that my recovery would be incomplete and that my skiing might be forever affected. . .

               April was the best. She dropped off movies and brought food. She texted me almost every day to check in and see how my recovery was going, and when I finally could resume, she invited me back on a trip to ski with her in Vail. I told her I’d think about it. There were a few local competitions, and, as time passed, in spite of my injury, I believed I could hold my own. I kept up my aerobic conditioning with other exercise, and I dreamed of besting my Masters record.

               It was surprising to me then, when April told me that she wanted to freestyle in the community event for that weekend, and that she would be entering the Masters competition, even though she qualified age-wise for the open. I thought about it. My knee was still fragile, but in spite of April’s warnings to be easy on it, it felt pretty good. April knew that freestyle was my favorite event, and now that I was older, I found it particularly gratifying to still hit a great jump off the mogul, getting lots of air, and just tapping my skis to my glutes in an angled kneel, just before I hit the ground and blew powder. “I’ll do it,” I said.

               April paused. “Well, I told the race director that he could leave you out of the competition because you might need to rest with your knee . . . .”

               Now this was annoying. I didn’t need a babysitter to tell me what I could and couldn’t do. “Well, I’m feeling pretty good. I think I can do it.” I left it at that.

               *            *            *

               The day of the competition I decided to put on one of my old one-pieces. It was in the neon colors that were the rage in the 90s. This had been replaced by a trend towards pastels, but I didn’t care. I wanted to test my knee and my fitness. Besides, I thought, my one-piece contained my mojo, I wore it in my best races. When I picked up my bib, Charlie, the race director couldn’t find it. I slid my finger down the list of names. “Jones,” I said. “It’s right there.”

               It was right there, but with a red ink mark that sliced through it. Next to it was a notation. “Withdrew. Ret.”

               “What’s that?” I asked.

               “Oh,” Charlie laughed. “April told us that you had retired from racing. Said you needed a rest. She said you were concerned about getting older. Wanted to end on a high note.”

               Now this was more than annoying. How dare she, I thought to myself. But before I could get any further, April appeared at my shoulder, smiling. “I brought you something,” she said. “It’s a pair of thermal socks. I figured you might like them. I tried to find them in that fluorescent color you like, but that must just be one that’s discontinued. I think it’s from an older line.”

               “What’s up with my registration?” I asked.

               “Oh. I told the race director that you were resting,” she said.

               “Did you tell him I was injured?”

               “No. I didn’t want to invade your privacy.”

               I was blown away. Privacy? I’d been on crutches for three weeks. What would it accomplish to hide the fact that I’d been injured? Besides, I’d been completely open about my injury. There was something that I wasn’t understanding.

               We were interrupted then by one of my buddies from Ski School instruction. “Coming out of retirement so soon?” he joked. “April told us you had your last run and were retiring.”

               I didn’t know how to respond. April just stood there, smiling benignly, as she pinned her number to her chest.

               “Well, I’m skiing today,” I said simply.

*            *            *

               At the top of the mountain, I could feel the familiar rush of needles, snow being blown from the snowblowers into my face. It would be spring soon, and too damp for much more skiing. In my competitive days, I would have pinned my hair back, but now I liked to leave it loose, the ends flying out from under my helmet, identifying me to my husband and kids.

               April was at the start, too. She apparently had made arrangements for her family to come and take pictures. They had already posted these to social media. I had an odd feeling of conflict inside me. I wanted to escape. I wanted to be separate and I didn’t know how.

               I didn’t have time to process these feelings for the gun went off, and the next thing I knew I was flying down the mountain. Sometimes, in spite of myself, my old instincts kicked in. And so it was on the day of the race. I knew that the sunlight would throw glitter on the face of the mountain. I knew that blue shadows would paint an abstract on the snow where the trees were caught from behind by the sun. Today, though, I let myself ski. I could feel the flexion of my boots and knew that I was pushing the capacity of my skis. I could hear the squeaks as they flexed through my motion. I could also hear the soft rain of powder behind me. April was following me.

               I hit a mogul and made my body a crescent, catching air before I hit the mountain again. My knee whined, but I barely felt the pain. I wanted my identity back, my independence, but all I seemed to be able to hear was April’s trailing behind me. I could feel myself becoming distracted by thoughts of her. Why? Why was she interfering in my life?

               There was an opening in the trees where one could go off-piste. It was barely visible, just enough room for a slim skier to duck between the trees. I could go off. I would be by myself. I wouldn’t be competing then, with April or to reaffirm my abilities in spite of my advanced age. I would lose the race, I thought. But it beckoned.

               I ducked off-piste. I had done this a million times, and my muscle memory began to kick in. There was an enormous pine tree, with a large well around it. It was always marked off with flags around the perimeter of the well, warning skiers to stay away. I wanted an adrenaline rush. Just like in my competitive days, I knew I could jump the well. I put my skis in tight parallel. I headed straight for the well and tucked in. I leaned forward and imagined a box jump, straightening my legs. In two seconds, I’d flown over the well and was tracing a line back on the course. Breathless, I reached the base of the mountain. A small crowd should have been cheering, but there appeared to be only confusion.

               I was breathless and sweating. My number had somehow ripped off my chest, and all I could see was the ragged edge of paper where it had been pinned. Then I heard the flapping of something, the thwap-thwap-thwap that I knew but could not place. I looked up. It was a helicopter.

               The rest of that day passed in a blur. The medical copter was flying towards the off-piste area, and people were not clapping for any of the finishers. I scanned the crowd for April. She was nowhere to be found.

*            *            *

               April survived. She apparently had followed me off-piste and missed the tree well. In an effort to stop herself, she’d curled into a ball and shattered her femur where it hit the trunk of the tree.

               I visited her in the hospital the week after.

               She smiled at me. “Don’t worry,” she said. “It’s not your fault.”

*            *            *

               But inside of me somewhere I did worry. I pushed it to the back of my mind. I didn’t think about it for another six weeks, when the three of us started up at golf again.

               “Well, we’re gonna have to find a fourth,” Catherine said.

               “Hm. Maybe I can ask Jana at the pro shop.”

               “Shame we don’t have April with us,” I said.

               “Your little shadow?” Catherine asked. “I don’t blame you for doing what you did. She was grasping.”

               My back arched. “What are you talking about?” I asked. “I didn’t do anything to hurt April.”

               Catherine caught herself.

               “I didn’t know that April would follow me,” I said, angry now.

               “Right,” Catherine said. “Hey, you know what? Let’s play some golf.”

November 29, 2020 16:49

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05:58 Dec 02, 2020

What’s up peeps! I’ve written my first mystery and submitted it for this week’s contest. “Murder at Kasserine Pass” I’m looking for honest feedback. I’ll admit I’m kinda nervous. I had a few ideas but not enough space to put everything in this short story. Your opinions matter to me and I greatly appreciate you taking the time to read my work. If you have something you’d like me to read please reply back and I’ll check it out. Robert


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