In the wincing bright light of a winter morning, Amir glided up the ski lift for the third time to the top of Jackrabbit Hill. All clear below, except for a stand of trees off to one side and one gray-green rock off to the other. Amir stepped off the lift, his skis crunching the snow with a voracious appetite. Ski vacay, hooray! He squeezed his knees and lifted his poles. A rabbit bolted from the trees, at first barely visible with its white on white, but startling him enough to begin sliding before he was truly ready.
The gray-green rock was not a rock after all, but a slow-moving clump that was headed straight into Amir’s path and this discombobulated him. By reflex, he stomped back on his heel, which would have been an excellent friction-full stopping strategy on his bike. But here it was useless, or worse than useless, and he picked up speed. There was arguably still time to snowplow his skis. But panic wiped away any thought of snowplow as he hurtled downward.
Slow down to turn, don’t turn to slow down, an instructor had told him years ago. Or was it: Turn to slow down, don’t slow down to turn? Panic turned the filing cabinet of his brain upside-down and shook all thoughts out.
As he drew closer to the gray-green rock clump, he could see movement, a turning. Pinkness. A face. This was no rock; this was a kid in a snowsuit. Right in his path. For a millisecond, he felt glad that instead of colliding with a rock, it would be the big puffy snowsuit of a big puffy kid.
Instinctively, Amir pictured stretching out his five-foot-ten-inch body, his clothing against the snow, and the clothing creating maximum friction. This was the spur-of-the-moment calculation as he fell to the ground. He left out two variables: the feet that were attached to skis.
The kid was in such a position—Amir would still not be able to quite comprehend this days later, as he lay in his hospital bed—that one of his legs could trap and twist Amir’s right leg. Amir felt, rather than heard, a dull snap.
A red curtain of pain fell.
Someone, somewhere, began screaming.
Amir awoke to the smell of Dettol and boiled potatoes. The skin around his eyes and mouth felt tight and crusty, as if he had been exuding tears and saliva, but he could remember nothing. He heard the mumble of a news channel on low, sprightly cartoon music, and a piping kid’s voice begging for Jello. The voice grated on him, dug into him like a spiral parasite; he did not know why. He had many young cousins who were more fun than a barrel of monkeys and he associated kids’ voices with festive occasions filled with food and laughter. A nearby toilet flushed. A machine beeped. Trays clattered. It was all too much, and Amir surrendered himself to sleep again.
“Good mo-oorning,” a woman’s voice rang out. “Brung you breakfast. Porridge and toast.”
Porridge. Amir had never eaten this, although he’d read about it in Dickens. He squirmed to sit up, and just then a scene flashed before him: blinding white snow—and a gray-green clump unexpectedly and inexorably sliding into his path. The kid’s voice piped up again, pleading to watch cartoons on TV. What a horrible sound, that voice, but it stopped as soon as the cartoon music started.
Amir pulled the tray closer and spooned some porridge into his mouth. Exceptionally bland. His eyelids fluttered. The spoon dropped.
A month earlier, Amir’s co-workers, on finding out his winter holiday plans, had razzed him mercilessly. “If there’s three pinetrees on the slope down,” Jason had said, “Amir is sure to run into every goddamn one of them.” Jason was a loudmouth, a spit-talker, and the top-coder in the small company. He began singing “O Tannenbaum” and would hum the catchy tune every time he saw Amir in the hall or entering a remote meeting early.
Amir asked someone in HR about appropriate work behavior, but she twirled her pen and said, “Something you should know about Jason is that he’s bad at small talk. He’ll get one idea and stick with it. Like how he’s always asking Larry about his Labradoodle?”
So Amir put up with Jason, smiled and shrugged off the jibes, even when the others started to talk up his ski vacay, too. He focussed instead on the fun he would have with Ramin, a college classmate, the one who’d suggested the trip to Blue Valley resort. Ramin was the guarantee that après-ski would be fun.
Even more than hanging out with Ramin, Amir looked forward to hitting the slopes. He remembered the sheer joy of tracing a wide S on paths of pristine white as a cool breeze ruffled his hair. He had visited there in Grade Five when the whole class had gone on a skiing field trip. He’d had so much fun that day: the jumbling bus, the pure joy of impromptu races, and the teacher’s reprimands floating away on the breeze.
As he lay in his hospital bed, Amir tried to make sense of things. The cartoons: Creatures living undersea. His trajectory toward the camo-snowsuit kid: Bodies colliding on a surface. The smells in the hospital changed to Pine-Sol and fried fish. The kid’s piping voice. Was he hallucinating? His leg started to throb. He pressed the buzzer and asked for relief. A nurse came, handed him a pill, and soon he drifted off.
“Skis, poles, boots, pass… will that be all? Would you like five lessons, too, the complete Bunny Run package?” the clerk asked. Her nose diamond sparkled under the light, making Amir think of sun on fresh snow. Wisps of cerulean hair stuck out from her toque, making him think of big sky. He had read about ski enthusiasts who work at ski resorts in order to maximize their skiing time. Folks his age and younger who camped out for the season in the cheapest places available, sometimes six to a room, just to save money and ski the season. She seemed to fit the profile, from knit cap to the long-sleeved waffle-weave T-shirt.
“The Bunny package,” she prompted, “yes or no?”
He wondered, briefly, if his brown skin had made her suggest the lessons, as if he were a rank beginner, unable to tell a ski’s tip from its tail.
“Just the equipment, thanks.”
While he inspected the items she brought him, she said, “You’ve got a day of awesome ski weather ahead.” Her perfect smile seemed genuine.
“Oh hey, this is just a day pass,” he said. “I’m here for whole week.” On impulse he added, “You’re gonna get sick of me.”
“Really?” she said, “we’ll see about that.” She caught his eye and quickly looked away. Then looked back.
Amir raised his hand to his cheek. What had she seen, a blemish? Then realized, no, that was a moment. Maybe.
She took the day pass from him, punched in a few buttons, and quoted him the discounted price for a one-week pass.
“Sounds good. That’s for the whole seven days?”
“Yup,” she said. She quoted the final date and added, “until midnight.”
“Seriously, you have midnight skiing?”
“Best time,” she said, one corner of her mouth curving up. “When do you think I get any time out there?”
He laughed. “Ah… I just know Blue Valley from my school field trips.” He had only been once and he didn’t know why he inflated the number of visits. It was not like him.
“Oh, so you’re a returnee?” She looked around and leaned closer. “Just between you and me, the school outreach program can be a royal pain—so I’m glad to know it pays off.” Then she turned back into an ordinary clerk, asking the next person in line if they wanted the Bunny Run package.
He paid and left, passing three children who were putting on boots and horsing around in the snow. An instructor joined the children, the eldest of whom wore gray-green camouflage, was pigeon-toed, and had glasses held in place by a thick elastic band. Amir was glad he hadn’t taken the lesson package, even if he did feel a little rusty after nearly two decades not on the slopes. If the pigeon-toed kid could survive these slopes, they were definitely user-friendly. Amir figured he’d be leveling up to the intermediate slopes within the day. Why not—he was in great shape and had lightning reflexes, if his game scores were anything to go by. Mental acuity, when you are going 20 mph down an icy path on nearly frictionless laminated wood slats, was important.
“Noah,” a woman’s voice called, “Don’t do that! Don’t do that!”
Amir’s brain did a fly-to-the-windshield smack. Pain was dragging a knife blade up and down his leg. He slammed the big red buzzer. Meanwhile, the floor polisher churned in the hall outside, and the woman called to a kid who piped back at her, “What? I’m not doing nothing… nothing.”
Now Amir’s head was hurting too, jarred by the abrupt re-awakening. The nurse leaned in, checked his catheter, and asked if he could wait twenty minutes before the next dose because… because… she murmured something-something.
“No, I can’t,” he said between gritted teeth. She stepped away, and a mob of worries ambushed him. Ramin! Amir’s friend would arrive and try to find him, who had not even unpacked at the chalet yet. Moreover, he had bought a week’s pass and did not get even a full day out of it. Could he transfer it to Ramin, whenever his friend should arrive? And how long would he have to stay in the hospital? Was he fit to travel? O Tannenbaum! O Tannebaum! Jason will have a field day, dammit. His head pounded and he felt like throwing up.
The nurse re-appeared, gave Amir a pill to swallow and, as he began to float, he had a vision for world unity. The pill manufacturers could set up their automated factories to make billions of pills, and everyone could receive an allotment every day and there would be no need to struggle and fight. Away he went, mentally tracing a wide S on paths of pristine white while a cool breeze ruffled his hair.
Amir awoke to the sound of clattering trays. There must be a speed bump right outside his door. When he opened his eyes, he had trouble recognizing the person waiting for him to wake up. Who did he know with hair the color of winter sky?
“Hi,” she said. “Just wanted to stop by and… say hi.”
He stifled a groan. “Uh, hello?”
“I came by to see my cousin Noah. The Spongebob super-fan in Room 3?” She motioned with her head.
“That… kid?” This time it clicked. The kid! The kid I collided with! He groaned. His short-term memory of the last minutes before the collision began reassembling themselves. He remembered the journey on the ski lift, the view of the ski run from above, a jackrabbit bolting from a stand of trees… Then he remembered the gray-green clump.
Amir struggled to stay quiet.
He felt like shouting “When’s that brat coming in to apologize?” He wanted the satisfaction of lecturing the boy: “When you have a spill, get out of the way!” Furthermore, he wanted to tell the kid to shut up; his voice grated like alley-cat claws on metal roofing. But Amir stayed mum.
“Yeah, that kid,” she said with a sigh as she took a seat on the only chair in Amir’s room. “Calamity Joe, we call him. It’s terrible, what happened. His mom wants to come in and… well….” She gestured vaguely.
Amir said, “Come in and… what?”
“The family lawyer says she mustn’t even look at you; you’ll sue the pants offa them.” She glanced at Amir’s leg and giggled. “Hey. You look like someone sued the pants offa you.”
Amir looked at his right leg, glowing bronze and muscular—right up until the wads of blood-speckled bandage and tape. “Oh. I got hit by a court case, is that what happened to me?” he said playfully.
“And here you thought it was a ski accident,” she said.
Amir felt sore and stiff and short-changed. But he continued to put on his brave face. “It’s just a little scratch. And an interesting tale to tell.” He suppressed the thought of Jason’s glee.
“I’ll say.” When she smiled, her eyes crinkled, and the nose-diamond caught the sunlight from the window.
“Thank heavens I’ve got a decent benefits package.”
“Kewl.” She smiled.
“Klo-ee, klo-ee,” piped a kid’s voice.
“What kind of break did you have?” she asked Amir. “Like, I mean: simple, compound? I’ve had two simple breaks. Prognosis is good—but not if you get bone chips everywhere.”
“Like, compound crushed nachos?”
“I don’t know,” he said, “I must have a chart somewhere… I’m so high I can’t feel my face.”
“Clo-ee, Clo-ee,” piped a kid’s voice.
“Is that you?” Amir said.
“Yeah. I better get back to him,” she said. “I just wanted to say hi—not tire you out.”
“Well, thanks.” He wanted to tell Chloë to stay, ignore the kid. And to return every day for as long as she could. But he didn’t want to seem too forward. “Before you go…” he said and hesitated. There was so much he wanted to know. He studied her face and it was then he noticed traces of anxiety. Like when his mother hadn’t wanted to “bother” him with news of her health when he was in his final year of studies. I don’t know Chloë; he thought, how can I know what she is worried about? He studied the ceiling for a moment. Instinctively he sought a different question.
She rose to go, and he suddenly remembered. “Your cousin Noah,” he said. “How is he? Did he have a simple break or a nacho-chip break?”
She laughed softly but when she turned to Amir again her eyes were dark with concern. “No breaks. Heart arrhythmia. That’s why he collapsed.”
“Oh,” he said. Things began to make sense.
“Yeah. They have to get to the bottom of it. It’s so weird—without warning. That’s why he couldn’t get out of the way. The docs say he’s a walking time bomb. Listen to that… my aunt… oh, she spoils him, doesn’t she?” Chloë began to blink furiously and turned away.
“Go,” he said softly. “Calamity Joe wants you.”
She nodded and left.
Amir looked out the window and listened to the floor polisher churn.