Hey, man. I know this is a little strange since I still have your number, but… I wanted to send you a handwritten letter. I don’t expect us to become pen pals or anything, but I promise there’s a point to this, so just bear with me for a bit here. Or, y’know, don’t. You’re a big boy now; you make your own decisions.
Anyway. Rewind to high school ski club. I joined for two reasons: because you were doing it, and because Jamie Tipton was doing it. What better justification could there’ve been?
No matter my reasons, waking up at 2am to catch a bus leaving at 3am from the rotunda in front of school wasn’t what I had in mind when I signed up. Not that I wasn’t usually up at 2am finishing homework—you worked your ass off, too, but you got your eight hours—but that didn’t involve hauling ski equipment, dodging drowsy classmates, and wondering if there was a bathroom on the bus. As far as first impressions go, it was down there with the time I fell asleep in Mr. Berming’s class, only to have him pick on me the rest of the day. (Were you in that class? I think you sat next to Socrates Koloktos. Such a cool name.)
My attitude changed almost as soon as I strapped on my skis. I attended an hour-long class with Antonio Delavagna—along with a bunch of kids half our age—and messed around testing stuff out afterward. Within a couple of hours, we were on the baby slopes, having a blast. You know I’m not the kind of person who gets passionate about something easily, but I felt a fire burning inside me despite the cold. (It wasn’t that chilly, anyway—45ºF, if memory serves.) By 11th grade, I was a competent-enough skier who could comfortably glide down most intermediate slopes.
You were the closest thing I had to a ski partner, Kenton. Of everyone in ski club, you were the only person I considered a true friend; the rest were hallway friends, as we used to call them. I sat next to you on the bus and on the lifts, shared meals with you in the lodges, and reached for your hand when I fell on the slopes. It… meant a lot to me. More than you probably ever realized.
You rarely missed a day of school, so I was taken aback when you missed a ski trip—the one to Mt. Snow, I think. Not American geographers’ finest moment, naming Mt. Snow; they may as well have named every river Water River. Are geographers the ones that get to name things? What even is a geographer, anyway? Is it an actual profession? Ms. Hughes would be ashamed if she knew what I didn’t know—and if she knew I kept staring at her lava lamp after she specifically told our whole class not to. Apparently, how middle schoolers’ minds work wasn’t part of her becoming an earth science teacher.
Geography and its magnitudes of mysteries aside, I found someone else to sit next to on the ride there (probably Antonio), but… it wasn’t the same. I spent most of the day skiing alone.
As the sun began winding down, a group headed by Darren Kurtz—remember him?—waved me over. They’d seen me lone wolfing all day and were wondering if I’d join them. I wasn’t against it, so I asked what they had in mind.
It was something I’d never have done with you there, Kenton. Something I never told you about afterward.
You liked to play it safe, to never bother anyone, to be a sweetheart when others bothered you. We both know I was no extrovert myself, but I was definitely more gung-ho about certain things than you. Skiing was one of them, apparently.
“We’re gonna head into those woods,” Darren told me, thumbing over his shoulder to the thick stand of trees that sidelined the path. “Wanna come?” (Yes, I’m paraphrasing. You’re out of your mind if you think I remember his exact words—and even though we haven’t talked in years, I know for a fact that you aren’t out of your mind.)
We were on a pretty tough intermediate slope; I was already having a tough time of it. So I readjusted my ski goggles and—
Oh. Jamie was there. Of the Tipton variety.
She took off her helmet and primped her curly brown hair, chatting with Karoline Gilly. They both spotted me looking their way and smiled. My legs started shaking, Kenton—and not from the cold.
“S-Sure,” I stammered. “I’ve never done this before, though.”
“It’s not so bad,” Darren said, twisting his back as he dug his ski poles into the snow. “C’mon.” (If by chance we do end up pen pals, let me know if approximated dialogue in our letters is weird. I know what I think, but who asked me?)
One after another, Darren and crew wove through the trees and into the thicket, heading for parts unknown. As they whizzed by, I thought of you, Kenton—how you would’ve politely refused and been halfway down the slope by that point. But I’m stretching this out, so you know what I ended up choosing. Especially after seeing Jamie barrel into the forest as easily as if she were strolling down the hallway.
Puffing up my chest against the icy air and fear in my heart, I liberally interpreted Robert Frost and figured that by doing this, I'd be taking the road less traveled by.
Then a skier passed behind me, startling me so that I leaned forward and slid into the woods. I might've been able to turn back, but I didn't. So far as I was concerned, I'd accidentally been forced off-piste.
... Yeah. Smart, huh?
I’d done stupid things before, but never like this. Two years of learning how to ski, practicing on steadily more challenging slopes, and the wealth of advice you’d given me suddenly meant squat. All I knew was the silhouetted backs of the classmates ahead of me, the speckled shadows of trees cast upon snow, and speed.
I’d never gone so fast in my life, Kenton. Not on bikes, not in cars—not even in planes, it felt like. At any given moment, I was fully prepared to lift off, though I certainly didn’t know what came after that. Then, to my amazement, I actually did lift off. I must’ve hit a small snow ramp, but I was so focused on not dying I couldn’t be sure. Also, there was a tree ahead. There was a tree ahead.
By the grace of whatever divine entity was watching over me, I landed with time to spare, swerving around the snow-covered giant with all the dignity of—
Agh! No time for metaphors! The trees were getting closer and closer together. I didn’t think that was possible, but then, there wasn’t much in the way of thinking going on in those moments. I was operating on pure instinct—just like when I asked Jamie to prom almost a year later. No wonder she rejected me. Well, she said yes and then said no a week later, if you remember. Eh, whatever. You and I got ice cream after prom, so it worked out.
It was not working out in that forest, though. Occasionally, I’d see someone from the group far ahead, gracefully negotiating the space between life and death. But for the most part, I was on my own. If my head met bark, there was a good chance I’d have been lost in there for hours. A search party could’ve followed our tracks, but it was cold, and getting colder. Frostbite was all but a certainty if I got into an accident, never mind a concussion or—at the speed I was going—just straight-up death.
As I said, though, there was no time to think about that or anything else. Just go. Go! Go!
For all the fear welling up inside me, I’d be lying if I told you I couldn’t feel the adrenaline pumping through my veins. No, I didn’t want to die, but wow, this beat sitting at home working on assignments that made a zombie out of me. So close to death, I was alive, Kenton. Clichéd or not, that’s God’s honest truth.
Balanced on the tightrope spanned over fear and thrill, there was only one way to go: forward. Well, unless a tree got in my way, but you know what I mean.
Eventually, I started seeing the others’ backs more and more often. I was… catching up to them. Me. Easily the worst skier among us. That meant I was catching up to Jamie, which—
Yeah, I was getting the hang of this. “Great, kid! Don’t get cocky,” I heard Han Solo yelling in the back of my mind. But who was he to talk? A smuggler who flew (what he claimed to be) the fastest ship in the galaxy—a hypocrite, in other words.
I had no time for hypocrites.
I had no time for anyone.
I only had time for—
Light. The last rays of the sun, peeking over the peak of Mt. Snow. Where… where had they come from?
It was over. I was out.
Coming to my senses, I pulled up right before I crashed into a skier who’d stopped on the other side of the slope. Darren.
“You okay, man?” he asked, putting a hand on my shoulder. “We were waiting for you.”
Looking around as my adrenaline faded, I saw others from the group—mostly the ones I talked to more frequently. Jamie wasn’t among them.
I didn’t care, though. The first person I thought of… was you, Kenton. I missed you. You wouldn’t have approved of my actions, but yours was the friendly face I wanted to see after nearly seeing the face of death itself.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I finally responded.
“Good. Let’s go warm up and grab something to eat. It’s almost time to leave.”
I followed, trailing him and the others down the unfamiliar slope, but I hadn’t really heard his words. I was thinking of you, who I’d become friends with in middle school over a different sort of wintry activity: ice skating. We passed each other in the hallway almost every day, but it wasn’t until that fateful day in the ice-skating rink that we started talking—and not because either of us initiated the conversation. From what you later told me, it was your mother’s doing. She’d apparently seen me sitting on the bleachers, slowly tying my skates on, and said to you, “Isn’t that boy from your school? Why don’t you go talk to him?”
And so you did.
I don’t remember what we talked about or how smoothly the conversation went (knowing us, smooth as sandpaper, I’m sure), but something clicked. Something formed. And something stayed.
For the rest of our years together in middle and high school, you always sat just outside my main friend group. Whenever I hung out after school, it was always with one or the other—you or “the boys.” Nothing specific caused or enforced this strange divide—made even stranger when you consider that my other friends all liked you—but there it stood, slicing my free time in two. One or the other. No other option.
I think, ultimately, that’s why I trailed Darren and the others into the forest that day. I told myself it was because of Jaime, but really, it was because you weren’t there. Not that my main friend group would’ve approved of my actions (with the exception of Jace Dooley, who would’ve laughed and shoved me between the first trees he saw), but none of them were in the ski club. Only you, Kenton.
I never told you about my time off the beaten path, but if I ever see you again, I’ll have to thank you for keeping me alive. And… for taking a chance on me. Even though your mom made you do it.
P.S.: I don’t know if you still ski, but if something (or someone) ever compels you to go against your better judgement and veer off-piste, think of me only if it makes you realize how dumb you’re being and turn around before it’s too late.
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Great job with this story, Benny, truly. I love the way you framed this as a letter to an old friend - it was a clever and effective way of telling the story. The protagonist feels real and I love the constant asides and parenthetical statements you added to the narrative. You provided a very strong voice throughout and presented a fun what-would-you-do tale. I enjoyed reading this a lot; thank you for sharing.
Thank you for reading!
Interesting premise, the letter and all, but a history lesson to someone you used to consider a true friend, someone you haven't spoken to in a while? Don't even know if they ski still, but...here's some advice? Sorry. Not my cup of tea.
GREAT STORY!.....................................................................read mine??????????????
You really nailed the voice here, Benny. Love the term "hallway friends" - don't know if you coined it or not, but it's definitely new to me, and it's perfect. I really liked the conversational asides throughout, particularly the geography aside and the failed prom invite aside. They painted such a personal but familiar picture for the reader. Sigh, high school... Aaaaaand now you've got me all nostalgic. I'll be flipping through yearbooks all night. Well done, Benny.
I doubt I'm the first one to use "hallway friends," but I've always found it appropriate. Enjoy flipping through those yearbooks, though! We all need to revel in some nostalgia once in a blue moon.