Joseph squeezed his eyes shut as the helicopter lifted off the ground. His stomach lurched behind the seatbelt, and he was grateful for the big headset that blocked out most of the sound. He felt a hand on his knee and opened his eyes to look into his wife’s face. Vanessa, so beautiful. Too beautiful, certainly for him. He smiled weakly to reassure her, and she nodded in approval.
Determined not to see how far below the ground outside was, Joseph focused instead on the other passengers. On Vanessa’s other side sat her mother, Alexandrine, whom Joseph always thought had too much name for a single person, even before you added the family name: D’Aureville. Alexandrine looked uncannily like a glittering insect wrapped in mink: enormous jeweled sunglasses and an eternally bored look on her thin, pinched face.
Her husband sat in the front, and one would be forgiven for thinking he were piloting the craft, so large and commanding was his presence compared to the little man who actually held the control column. Danton D’Aureville did not wear the silver of his sixty years like a coating of dust the way most men did, but rather like a suit of armor, polished to a blinding shine, complete with great sword.
Vanessa was more approachable than her parents were, probably from living in California where he’d met her. But when her family was all together like this, Joseph suffocated in the aristocratic air with which they all carried themselves. It made him uncomfortably aware that his clothing was not tailored, and in fact the sides of his sweater were probably even pilling where they met the arms—why hadn’t he checked before putting it on? His watch was not worth polishing, his shoes were scuffed and surely, surely Alexandrine’s eyes were scrutinizing all of this with disdain behind those huge glasses…
Joseph cleared his throat. “I, um, wanted to thank you for inviting me on this trip.” He couldn’t keep the tremor out of his voice, but a quick sideways glance revealed that the parents were not taking out their phones or looking pointedly out the window the way they usually did when he opened his mouth. He focused on an errant hangnail on his thumb, picking at it on his lap as he continued. “We haven’t all spent much time together, even though Vanessa and I have been married for a year, and I’m glad this weekend is going to change that.” He was pleased to hear that he was no longer shaking, but then immediately started to worry that they might take his statement the wrong way.
“Not that it’s anyone’s fault we haven’t seen each other, I know you’re very occupied with your business, sir, I just meant—”
He was interrupted by a click in his headset, followed by the pilot’s voice, “Nous arrivons dans cinq minutes.”
Another click, then Danton’s loud baritone, “Oui, je le vois.”
Another click, then Alexandrine’s bored drawl, “Enfin, I cannot sit any longer in this tiny space. Land softly!”
Vanessa leaned over him and pointed out the window, but he was seeing for the first time the push-to-talk button on the cord of his headset. He pushed it now and heard a click, followed by thick silence indicating that his line was open. He let go of the button and the ambient hum flooded back in. Vanessa was tugging insistently on his arm now, so he looked out and was hit with the full glory of the French Alps. The snow was brilliant white and the jagged blue peaks stark against the perfectly clear sky.
But he returned to the button, pushing it again. Click. “It … looks very nice,” he said into the microphone. He saw her parents shift in their seats and, almost in unison, direct their gaze resolutely away from him and out the windows. On his thumb, he’d ripped out the hangnail and the skin underneath was raw and red.
Below, he saw the beautiful glass and wood multiplex of the chalet. He caught his reflection in the helicopter’s bubble glass. He looked miserable.
“I’m sorry?” Joseph said to the receptionist in front of him, “Are you sure? Joseph Herman? Maybe it’s under my wife’s name, Vanessa Herman?”
“Non, monsieur. C’est pas possible,” she replied, her cold voice echoing off the high ceilings to mock him again and again. “We are fully engaged with ten guests this week-end and you are not one of them. Is there anything else I can help you with,” she asked, somehow without actually offering.
Heat rose to his face and sweat threatened to break out across his forehead. “Yes, I—”
Vanessa joined him, “Everything okay?” At least her voice didn’t carry that accent that was so plaguing him today.
“No, she can’t find the reservation,” Joseph muttered.
“Did they check under my name? Vanessa D’Aureville,” she said brusquely to the receptionist, who smiled at her warmly. “Oui, madame, your belongings have already been brought up to your suite.”
“Why,” Joseph’s voice cracked and he cleared his throat, “Why is it under your maiden name?”
“Oh, you know the family’s travel agent, she’s just stuck in her old ways.”
He did not know the family’s travel agent, but he tried a smile for her sake.
“Would madame still care for an afternoon massage in the spa?” The receptionist asked as Vanessa took Joseph’s hand and started to lead him away, “No, I will take it in the room,” she said over her shoulder.
“Of course, madame. Je vous en prie,” the receptionist dipped her head to Vanessa’s retreating back.
“Did you hear?” she said as they approached the lift attendant, “Everyone else cannot make it. How annoying to be here just by ourselves!”
It was during the cheese course that Vanessa raised her glass to toast her father, who was sitting at the head of the long, mostly empty table. The sun was setting in the panoramic windows behind her, the crystal chandelier overhead scattered rainbows to add to her already copious sparkle. She looked like she belonged here, Joseph thought as her engagement ring flashed in his eyes. He had not given it to her. It had been her mother’s.
“To Papa,” he heard her and Alexandrine saying now, “Joyeux anniversaire!”
“Happy birthday,” Joseph added, hoping he wasn’t too late. Across the table, Alexandrine’s dark glasses told him he had been.
After dinner, Vanessa played the baby grand in the lounge while her parents looked on. A fire glowed demurely in the hearth, a million stars sparkled through the windows.
Joseph stood alone, admiring his wife from afar. He took a nervous gulp from his whiskey and coughed. He didn’t even like whiskey. He looked out the glass door and onto to the al fresco dining patio. In the night beyond the light of the covered tables, a gentle snow was beginning to fall. He suddenly felt like he needed air, and reached for the door handle.
“Leaving so soon?” Danton boomed behind him.
Joseph whirled around, stumbling into the tall marble statue next to him. He raised both hands to steady it, dropping his whiskey glass in the process. His knees had already buckled under the weight of paying for the statue’s damage for the rest of his life before he realized it had swayed only slightly from the impact. Danton spectated, sipping his own whiskey.
“Do you have any redeeming qualities, Joseph?” He might have been addressing the entire room.
“I’m sure I could come up with one, sir,” Joseph, not finding anything else, awkwardly wiped the spilled whiskey off the marble with his hands, “But only later, long after this conversation is over, when I am trying to sleep.”
Danton regarded him, and for one wild moment Joseph thought he might smile. But then he turned his attention back to his family.
“I love my daughter,” he said suddenly.
“Yes … I love her too,” Joseph replied, “I married her.” Why did he feel like he had to remind him?
“You did,” Danton sighed, exhaling for an impressively long time. “Strong skier are you, Joseph?” His voice was low for once, and Joseph was shocked by the change. “What?”
“These mountains can be treacherous to the uninitiated,” he continued softly, “But I have been skiing for a very long time. Monsieur!” His voice rose again to summon the maître d’hôtel before Joseph could think of a reply.
“On a besoin d’un … autre verre,” Danton said. The maître’s eyes were directed to the glass on the floor, then to the stain on the marble statue. Joseph realized with horror that there was blood streaked through the whiskey spill. He looked at his thumb and saw that the hangnail was bleeding, he didn’t realize he had picked at it again.
“Do try not to touch her again,” Danton nodded to the marble statue as he walked back to his wife and daughter, “She belongs in the hands of a master.”
Joseph looked up, seeing the statue for the first time. It was a woman, quite a bit larger than life-sized. She was covered from head to toe in a thin veil, and he had to remind himself that it was stone as he marveled at the exquisitely delicate way it hung, transparent, over her features. Had he known anything about art, he might have thought, “Corradini,” might have even wondered if it were, in fact, a real Corradini. But all he knew was that she looked like she was thinking of someplace far away, which was exactly where he wanted to be. There was a slight smile at the corner of her mouth, like she had a secret. If she were really his friend she would tell him, but he forgave her because, in that moment, he felt closer to this distant woman than to anyone else in the room.
They were waiting for the lift. The attendant explained that even though there were two lifts, only one of them could access the suite found on each floor. The other lift was for the common areas: subterranean pool, spa on the top three levels, and by the way had they visited the 5,000 square meter underground wine cellar and did they know it was UNESCO World Heritage Site, no they did not know, très intéressant…
“Are there any stairs?” Joseph blurted out suddenly. The lively conversation halted and they all turned to look at him.
“There are service stairs on the other side of the building, monsieur,” the attendant said after a moment, “If you will wait, I can escort you—”
“No need, I’ll find my own way,” and he was gone before Vanessa’s firm hand could stop him. He could feel their eyes burning into his back. Eventually he heard Alexandrine’s mocking drawl, followed by Danton’s deep laugh … and even Vanessa’s giggle he usually found so charming. Joseph was glad to be out of earshot.
He found the stairs easily enough, but took his time climbing each floor, relishing the solitude. Whenever he was in a lonely stairwell, he always wondered how long it would take for someone to find him should he fall and break his neck. On these brightly lit, cleanly polished steps, he felt his prospects were the bleakest they had ever been.
The room was dark when he entered, and Vanessa was already asleep. He had been gone longer than he realized. He hung up his dinner clothes quietly, trying not to wake her. It was snowing in earnest now, and as the ghostly white flakes piled on the glass roof over him, he felt like he was being buried alive.
By the morning, he was.
The glass walls and roof were completely blanketed in white. A bright sun filtered through, and he felt as if he were in a light box. It must be late morning. He rolled over—but Vanessa was not there.
She had left a note on resort stationary: “Down at breakfast, you look like you need rest.” He rolled onto his back and stared at the snow on the roof, feeling its weight on the glass, feeling it want to break through and crush him. Even willing it to.
What did that mean, “You look like you need rest”? Was she trying to tell him not to join them? Did she also think she was too good for him? No, she loved him. She married him. Why did he feel like he had to remind himself?
He got up to dress.
There was no attendant waiting for him when he got out of the elevator, and the same maître d’hôtel passed him on the way from the dining patio, avoiding his gaze. “J’arrive,” the man said, somehow cutting Joseph off even though he wasn’t going to speak. Joseph headed to the patio.
He could see the family through the glass door, sitting around the table, wrapped in furs and the glow of heat lamps. He stopped to watch them. They all had the same hands, he noticed. Pale, manicured, smooth. Unworked. They gestured for their owners, lifted expensive wines to expensive lips, conducted the whole world like it was their own personal orchestra. But their collective movement paused now as something in the distance caught their attention.
Joseph looked down at his own hands. His palms were heavily calloused. He turned them over. His nails were torn, a lifetime of anxious biting. That hangnail that had betrayed him remained only as a thin line of dried blood.
The family had gathered along the railing and now their hands were indicating something further up the slope that Joseph could not see.
He suddenly hated their perfect hands, their accusing, pointing fingers. What was he even doing here? What did she see in him? Was it just pity? He hated all of them, why did he go on pretending otherwise?
He heard a distant, dull roar and looked up. Beyond them, Joseph could see the avalanche: what looked like all of the snow on the entire mountain rolling down at an impossible speed, heedless of everything in its path, and getting closer by the second.
The ground rumbled beneath them and knocked Alexandrine off her feet.
Inside, the crystal shards of the chandelier tinkled nervously, the grand piano whispered like someone was touching all the keys at once, and the tall marble statue, Joseph’s only friend, swayed with surprising violence.
He was running before he realized it was impossible for him to catch it, but it didn’t matter. The statue landed on the floor with an almighty thud and crack, right in front of the patio door.
Outside, panic was setting in. Danton was helping Alexandrine to her feet, and Vanessa was running unsteadily to the door. She threw all of her weight against it, but it was lodged shut by the toppled statue. She saw Joseph and started to pound on the glass.
Inside, Joseph was looking at the statue. The woman’s eyes were still distant, her smile betraying nothing. She might not have known that she was broken in half. He shifted his gaze calmly to meet Vanessa’s through the glass.
The rumbling grew rapidly closer and louder.
Vanessa’s expectant look shifted to confusion. Why wasn’t he helping? For a split second, fear flickered in her eyes.
Then Joseph was on the door side of the statue, jamming his hands underneath it, feeling his fingernails tear out. He roared as he strained with all his might, pilled sweater ripping under the strain, and the statue rolled, just once, but that was all it took.
He pulled each of them through the just-wide-enough gap and flung them inside, the patriarch last as the avalanche reached the chalet. They all backed away from the door and windows as the solid white ocean, seemingly the entire world, crashed and roared past them.
An eternity later, it subsided. The silence it left was even more deafening. Joseph found that his hand was holding Vanessa’s, and both were smeared with his blood. He looked up at her face. Her eyes, no longer afraid, no longer demanding, were full of tears.
He turned to see Danton and Alexandrine, both on the floor, gaping back at him.
Somewhere down the long hall, something fell and shattered the silence.
Joseph picked Alexandrine up and led her to a chair. He handed her those dark sunglasses, one lens cracked, one lens missing. He would not have guessed that the eyes behind them were so sad and lonely. Then he helped Danton up. The great man held onto his arm even after he’d taken his seat, and Joseph looked quizzically at him.
“Merci, my son.”
That was the story he told the resort staff when they found him sitting there, alone, in front of the patio door, looking at the wreckage. It was the joy in his description of finally being accepted by his wife’s father that really made them pity him, this poor man who had clearly gone mad with grief. His family had been on the patio when the avalanche swept it away, the staff explained to the rescue team that came an hour later, and he must have arrived too late to help them.
The helicopter news footage would show the clean, snowy slope where the dining patio used to be, and the marble statue still firmly blocking the door on the inside. No viewers watching from home would see the statue’s smile or know the secret behind it, know how distant its eyes seemed even as Joseph pushed it over to land in front of the door. No viewers would know that it had also witnessed the flicker of fear in Vanessa’s eyes, witnessed it grow and grow and eventually get wiped cleanly away.
But some viewers might wonder if it were, in fact, a real Corradini.