I need to throw myself off a mountain. I need to push myself until the only pain I have is in my body. That pain, I know. That pain, I can handle. Unfortunately, all I’ve got is Freefall, a steep vertical wall covered in ice and snow on the sheer north face of Moose Mountain at Lutsen resort. It’s a Minnesota mountain. In other words, a glorified hill, but it will have to do.
I stab the snow with my poles and laugh aloud, an angry burst of breath crystallizing in the night air.
The price of falling is never free.
A girl in a pale blue jacket and rented skis zooms past me without pausing long enough to take in the view or assess the danger. Happens every year during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Some dumb tourist gets lost or cocky and tackles a black diamond run. It never ends well, but it does keep the ski patrol employed.
I aim my left ski straight down and, in one fluid motion, push against my poles and kick off with my right ski. The black-green blur of the evergreen trees to my right and left pick up speed as I do. Stark against the snow and strong, they refuse to shed so much as one needle in the cold-ass Minnesota winter.
The text. The text. The goddamn text. Never meant for my eyes. Impossible to forget.
Be an evergreen, I blink and tell myself. Shed nothing.
But I’m not an evergreen and the stinging hotness edges down my cheek where it freezes, an icy pimple of pain, and eventually falls onto the snow beneath me. I’m used to leaving a bit of myself on the slopes, but not like this.
Crying over a broken heart is for the girls who count calories, not push-ups. Girls who drink lattes, not whiskey shots. Girls who spend their Sundays in the mall, not throwing themselves down ice-covered mountains. I plant my pole and kick against the beaten-down bed of snow, promising myself that the frozen tear, now forever a part of Freefall, is the last I will shed for Blair.
Ahead of me I spot the girl in the blue jacket. She’s crouched low, head tucked, like she’s in some goddamn hurry to have her death wish come true. Fucking idiot. Freefall isn’t for skiers who want a vacation break from their lives. Freefall is for people who need to face death to feel alive.
The girl in the blue jacket is coming up on Freefall’s rough patch where rocks jut out without warning. To make it worse I’m not seeing the sparkle of diamonds in the snow that indicates fresh powder. I’m seeing a flat whitish-blue patch that means only one thing. Ice.
“Oh, shit,” I say, my boots biting into my calves as I try to slow down. This girl doesn’t know she’s about five seconds away from having a search and rescue party thrown in her honor as she hits the ice patch at full speed. I cringe, but then she’s cutting through it with sharp left and right turns, leaning forward (forward!) until she clears it and reaches the bottom. She doesn’t stop there to catch her breath or count her blessings or scratch off one of her nine lives. Most skiers have nothing left when they hit the bottom of Freefall and have to ice skate Valley Run, the trail that leads to the front of Moose Mountain, but not this girl. She harnesses her momentum and lets it propel her over Valley Run until she disappears from sight.
Well, shit. No way am I letting a girl like that ski my mountain without at least knowing her name. I bury my poles in my armpits and crouch low for maximum speed. The broken crusts of ice, compliments of mystery girl, are annoying but nothing I can’t handle, and when I hit the bottom of Freefall, I, too, fly onto Valley Run, my eyes searching for a bit of pale blue until I spot her already standing in line for the lift that leads to Eagle Ridge. Impossible. She must have taken Valley Run at record speed, which means I have to as well if I’m going to ride with her up the lift that leads to the top of Eagle Mountain. I’m puffing when I ski up to the two skiers between the girl in the blue jacket and me, but a tap on the shoulder and a toss of my head sends them scurrying behind me. I don’t often play the Eleanor Engebretsen card, but this is a special occasion, and I claim my place next to the mystery girl who isn’t even breathing hard, though her cheeks are a sexy shade of red.
The ski lift carries the two people in front of us up, up, and away and we ski-shuffle onto the lift pad. She chooses the left and I go to the right. The chair hits the back of my knees and then I am sitting next to this girl, arms and hips and shoulders touching, and she’s futzing with her goggles while I’m being swept away.
I should talk to her. I want to talk to her. I have a million questions to ask her, but my brain won’t work. It’s too busy trying to figure out how to steal sideways glances at her without getting busted. The first glance confirms what I suspected. No pro would be caught dead in rented skis and some off-brand jacket probably bought at Walmart. The second glance reveals a mess of auburn curls trying to escape a hand-knitted hat. The third glance gets me busted, but not until after I’ve checked out her long eyelashes dusted with snow, her full nibble-worthy lips, her slight overbite that makes her perfectly imperfect.
I was wrong.
This girl has all the right equipment.
“Hello, I’m up here.” She looks at me until I pull my gaze off her body. A puff of smoke from her breath hits the freezing air and obscures her face for one second. Long enough for me to realize I like looking at her face. “I’m Kate Moreau.”
“Ellie.” I should say more, explain why I’ve been checking her out, but my brain has quit working.
“It’s my first time at Lutsen. How about you?” Kate tries to rescue me from the awkward moment, but I hate small talk. Though I’m willing to listen to Kate’s voice for hours, as long as I don’t have to respond.
I stare through the V of my skis at the ski run and the tiny zooming skiers beneath us. I stare ahead at the gray-blue expanse of Lake Superior that begins at the foot of Lutsen and spreads across all of Minnesota’s North Shore, ending who knows where. I stare at my knee, my boot, the clump of snow stuck to my ski—anything but the girl sitting next to me—and try to think of something clever to say.
“I asked if this is your first time at Lutsen, too.” Kate looks at me, waiting for an answer I obviously should give her, but once again I’m rescued because the chairlift bounces to a stop and the bar lifts up. Kate quick steps it to the left while I stand there like an idiot and get my ass smacked before I realize I need to make a move.
“Uh, K-Kate?” My tongue, my fucking tongue. Such a traitor.
“Yeah?” She turns to look at me.
“It’s my first time skiing Lutsen, too.” I have no idea why I’m lying. No, that’s another lie. I know perfectly well why I’m lying to Kate. Because I wish it was my first time. I’d give anything to start over.
“Cool. I’m heading to Mogen. Want to join me?” Kate asks and I notice her eyes for the first time. Gray streaked with slivers of pale blue. Little crinkles of skin around the corners. It makes me want to hear her laugh.
“Yeah, sure. Love to,” I lie for the second time.
Mogen is Lutsen’s terrain park. It’s infested with snowboarders and peppered with deformed hills that insult real ski jumps. It’s also Blair’s favorite run and I can’t think of Mogen without thinking of Blair. And I can’t think of Blair. Not yet.
I am about to suggest another run, any other run, but Kate is a moving blur and, like on Freefall, she doesn’t stop when she hits the top of Mogen. Someone really should tell her she’s missing the best views, but that someone isn’t going to be me.
I kick off and follow Kate. The run splits and she heads to the right toward a quarter-pipe jump. She slices through a swarm of snowboarders in a way that makes me proud to know her, even if it has only been for three whole minutes. I watch Kate approach the jump. I watch for the telltale signs that signals an amateur: A split second of hesitation. Surrendering to the reflex to pull back. Veering off at the last minute. But Kate does none of those as she takes the jump and somersaults through the air like she exists beyond the rules of gravity, and when she sticks a perfect landing, I forget how to breathe.
“That’s what I’m talking about!” Kate fist pumps the air and whoops for joy, and then it’s my turn to take her breath away. I shift my weight and aim straight for the quarter-pipe jump. My repertoire plays through my mind. A flatspin, an alley-oop, a twister? As usual, my body makes the decision for me. A Lincoln Loop it is. I bury my poles in my armpits and crouch low. The quarter-pipe rushes me and I feel it, the moment when my muscles take over. Wind slaps me across the face. My stomach presses against my spine. The sky tilts and then—
Images flood my mind.
A soft body, the ins and outs of which I know better than my own.
Laughing eyes. Lying eyes.
Long dark brown hair that bleeds blond. Ombré, she calls it. I should have known better than to fall for a girl who couldn’t even be faithful to one hair color.
Blair. Blair. Goddamn Blair. Never meant for my heart. Impossible to forget.
My muscles contract. All of me contracts. The earth tilts on its axis. Fast and out of control, a wash of white. It’s a different kind of fall, but like the others, it isn’t free.
When the sparkling white starts to spin away, I spot Kate’s face hovering above me and I pray to die right there at the foot of the quarter-pipe jump on Mogen.
“Oh my God, are you okay?” Kate asks.
I lie in the me-shaped indentation of snow, wriggling toes and bending wrists and trying to suck in air through lungs that have betrayed me as well. “Yeah, I think so.”
Kate grabs my hand. “Let me help you up.” She pulls me into a one-legged perch. I look for my other ski and spot it a few feet away, skewering a mogul. A sharp pain hits like a punch to the gut. I double over and grab my side. First Blair and now this—boffing a jump that on any other day would have been my bitch. The world wobbles again.
“Hey.” Kate reaches out an arm and I grasp it like a kid in SkiWee holding onto the T-bar for dear life. “You sure you’re okay?”
The pain begins to subside until I can straighten and look into her eyes. “Yeah, I’m fine. Sorry.”
Her eyes crinkle at the corners. “For what? Falling? It happens.” Kate yanks her hat off and a mop of wavy auburn hair tumbles around her face.
“Thanks for picking me up.” Jesus! Did I say that? “From the ground, I mean. From the ground. You know, where you found me and…picked me up.”
Kate laughs and I realize maybe Jack was right. She usually is when it comes to girls. Jack is my butch best friend whose real name is Lisa Marie, but she’ll kick you in the balls if you call her that. Doesn’t matter whether you have balls or not. She earned the nickname Jack when she came out, all at once and without giving a shit. Like that kid’s toy, the one with the clown that couldn’t take the pressure anymore and had to pop out of the damned box. That’s Jack. Happy to be out, but always looking for the next box to pop into. Which, according to Jack, is precisely what I need to do to get over Blair.
Step one: Get a little tourist pussy. The sooner, the better.
Jack’s words, not mine, and even though Jack can be crude, she’s also brilliant as hell. She’s got it all planned out—how I can get over my cheating girlfriend. She even named her master plan The Blair Bitch Project, but so far I’ve yet to find a tourist willing to sign up for some meaningless, heartbreak-erasing revenge sex. Still, Jack’s plan is devious in a way that makes me sad she and I have zero chemistry, because I sure as hell love how her mind works.
I steal another glance at Kate. There’s a sexy little glint in her eyes and a half smile on her face that could be interpreted as flirty. As Jack would say, no time like the present to get down with The Blair Bitch Project.
“How about I buy you a cocoa as a thank you?” Heat surges on my face until I’m certain I look like a friggin’ stop sign. Round and red and telling Kate to stop, to not cross this lane.
Talk about a contradiction.
“I don’t think so,” Kate says and my stomach tightens. “But you could buy me a burger and fries to go with that cocoa.”
“You got it.”
Kate looks down the hill at my ski sticking out of the mogul. “Be right back.” She skis over and yanks out my ski, then side steps her way back up Mogen. She drops the ski in front of me and I step into the binding. “You’re lucky. You could have really hurt yourself.”
It’s subtle, but it’s there. Kate’s assumption that I couldn’t handle the quarter-pipe jump, and it stings. So much I almost tell her I followed her down Freefall. That it was easy! That I’m Eleanor Engebretsen, the Eleanor Engebretsen, for crying out loud, and that I’m only off balance because my ex-girlfriend sent the wrong lover a text. But instinct tells me to shut the fuck up, so I do.
Kate surveys the slope and shakes her head. “We’re going to take it slow and skip the rest of the jumps. If you get in trouble, for God’s sake, sit your ass down and yell for help. Got it?”
“Yeah.” My ego takes a hit, but my libido surges. “I got it.”
“Okay, then. Follow me.” And she’s off.
One quick dart toward the moguls would clarify things once and for all, and yeah, it’s tempting. But then Kate looks back at me, and it strikes me that following this girl might lead me exactly where I want to go.
As promised, Kate takes it slow, hugging the curves of the hill in a way that makes me see more than just her body. I see her form, the way she uses the slope and the pull of the hill to her advantage. The way she reacts without thought or fear. Three minutes down the hill, I’m pretty sure Kate’s talent is more born than trained. Five minutes down, I’m certain it doesn’t matter.
“We made it!” Kate says when we reach Rosie’s Chalet. She’s too polite to say what she really means—that I made it, miracle of miracles. She slides her rented skis into the rack and smiles at me.
“Thanks to you.” I lay it on thick as I slide my Rossignols next to Kate’s skis. “C’mon. You’ve earned that burger and fries.”
“Don’t forget the cocoa.” Kate grins as she takes off her gloves and shoves them in her pockets.
“Absolutely not,” I promise her.
We walk toward Rosie’s, where cocoa is going to be served, hopefully with a heavy sprinkling of sweet talk. Kate holds the door for me and I walk forward, my attention momentarily drawn to her long fingers circled with silver rings and her neatly trimmed nails.
It’s impossible to stop my imagination from fast-forwarding as we step into the women’s locker room to ditch our jackets and clunky ski boots. I sit on a bench and bend over to unclamp my buckles. It’s the perfect vantage point to steal more glances at Kate as she unzips her jacket, but she catches me and smiles a Mona Lisa smile. Indecipherable. Infuriating. My stocking feet hit the floor and soak up the snow that has dripped in clumps from my boots and turned to puddles. I shiver.
“What’s wrong?” Kate asks me.
“Nothing.” I tell her. “Just cold feet. I’ll warm up soon enough.”
She laughs like she’s reading between all my stupid lines. I put on my tennis shoes and lead Kate upstairs to Rosie’s. Of course, getting her on my turf is only the first part of my plan. The next part depends on whether or not Jack is working the front desk at Eagle Ridge Lodge. She’d better be. Otherwise The Blair Bitch Project is dead in the water before I can give Kate a reason to take off all those rings.
Rosie’s Chalet looks like it’s been attacked by elves high on peppermint-flavored crack. Seriously. I hate how businesses along the North Shore pander to the tourists, especially at Christmas. We cut down evergreens, screw them, and stick them in corners. As if that weren’t enough humiliation, we throw fake lights and cheesy ornaments on them. Puke. Evergreens belong outside. They don’t deserve to die so some idiot can sing “O Tannenbaum” while staring at dried-up needles clinging to dead branches, but no one’s asked my opinion on the subject of holiday décor so far.
Kate and I head upstairs to the cafeteria where hamburgers and fries are served with an abundance of grease. Someone has woven tinsel through every antler chandelier. Probably Grandma, who, according to the DJ over the sound system, got run over by a reindeer. It’s Sunday, which means the Christmas ski weekend is almost over, thank God. There’s hardly an overpriced Dale of Norway sweater in sight since most of the tourists have headed home in time for school to resume tomorrow, though there is a healthy scattering of locals. Like me, they prefer to ski when the resort is practically deserted. And like me, they know the booth by the stone fireplace is reserved for the once Olympic almost hero Peder Engebretsen and his daughter, the rising star. But that’s not where I guide Kate. Confused stares follow me, but I don’t care. The Blair Bitch Project is all about doing whatever it takes, whoever it takes, to mend a broken heart, so I sure as hell am not going to let Kate anywhere near the photos of Dad taken in 1988 in Calgary, pre-disaster, not to mention the pictures of me jumping at Big Sur and Whistler and Iron Mountain.
For The Blair Bitch Project to work, I need to be Ellie, the out of her league skier Kate rescued from fractured limbs or certain death on Mogen. How else am I going to get Kate to take the short leap from compassion to passion?
I choose the booth farthest from The Engebretsen Pictorial Hall of Fame, which is also the one nearest the kitchen where the scent of ketchup and diced onions and garlic bread hangs heavy in the air. We slide into the booth and sit across from each other. Kate grins at me and time feels like it stops. I lose myself in her eyes, her gray-blue eyes, but then she looks away from me and toward the cafeteria line. “You did say something about a burger and fries, didn’t you?”
“Right. And cocoa.” I climb out of the booth.
“With lots and lots of whipped cream,” Kate says.
I nod and head toward the cafeteria, bumping against protruding chairs and stumbling over duffel bags as the image of Kate wearing nothing but whipped cream fills my mind. The cafeteria line is long, and I use the time to try to answer the same old questions. Is she? Or isn’t she? And does she know I am?
It isn’t the suspense that gets me. It’s the possibility I’m making a fool of myself that pisses me off. I grab burgers and fries and top two mugs of cocoa with a scandalous amount of whipped cream, but I still don’t have the first clue if my ski buddy is a potential fuck buddy. Frankly, I need Jack with all her smooth moves. She scores like nobody I know. Me? Once I’m in the game, I’m fine. It’s the prelim qualifiers that kill me.
I return to the booth and set the food and cocoa in front of Kate.
She lifts the mug to her mouth. “Mm,” she says, sipping the sweet hot cocoa, and when she sets the mug down on the table I can’t help but stare at the bit of whipped cream clinging to her upper lip. Flick. That damn tongue. How am I supposed to come up with any words, much less the perfect words, when Kate is flicking her tongue at me?
I am about to give up and ask Kate to hand over her queer card when the sound of laughter from the direction of the fireplace grabs me by the guts and twists me inside out. I turn to look, like I could resist, and sure enough. There’s Geoffrey-with-a-G and Blair in all her pink and white snow bunny glory sitting at my table. Laughing. Holding hands. Perfecting the art of prefuck flirting.
Kate follows my gaze and fixes her eyes on the guy across from Blair.
“Your ex?” she asks.
It registers that Kate is referring to Geoffrey-with-a-G, the sole heir of Lutsen’s richest family who stole Blair from me by offering her the one thing I didn’t already possess and couldn’t strap on.
Money. Loads of it.
“No,” I say. “Just someone who reminds me of my ex back home.” I force my eyes away from Blair to Kate.
“Where’s home?” Kate asks.
Sometimes, when I’m lucky, lies come to me like muscle memory, effortlessly and without the need to think. “Minneapolis. You?”
Kate takes another sip of cocoa. “Tahoe.”
“As in Nevada? What the hell are you doing up here?” I forget about Blair and Geoffrey for a second. One glorious second.
“Mom came to check on a business opportunity and I tagged along for the skiing.” Kate takes a bite of her hamburger. “What brings you to Lutsen?”
“Christmas weekend ski vacation with my folks.” I drum my fingers on the table and try to figure a way out of what is quickly becoming the unsexiest conversation ever.
Blair laughs from across the room. Loud and high and not at all like the sound of Blair laughing I’ve come to know so well this past year. My guts twist again and I cringe. I can’t help it.
Kate reaches for a napkin and her hand brushes mine for a moment. I look up and find her eyes trained on me. “I’m sorry,” she says.
“Don’t be. I’m over her.” Her, I say and swallow hard. “The girl from back home, that is. My ex.”
And I thought flying off a ski jump at sixty miles per hour took guts.
Kate’s eyes widen like she’s taken it all in. Blair and Geoffrey and me. “But you’re over her?” she asks. “The girl back home who looks like the pretty girl over there?”
“Absolutely. I couldn’t be more over her.” I’ve never lied so much in my life. It’s so easy. And right now it sure as hell feels better than the truth.
“I’m glad.” Kate looks me straight in the eyes.
I pick up my hamburger, but I feel bloated with lies. Like I can’t stomach one more thing so I put the hamburger down on my plate, but not before Kate notices.
“Aren’t you hungry?”
And then I spy it, the inrun to the jump I need to take. “Starving,” I say. “But not for food.” It feels too brazen, too sudden, and a flush of heat crawls up my neck, but a half smile plays at the corner of Kate’s mouth.
“You’re not thirsty either.” Kate glances at my untouched mug.
Girl doesn’t miss a thing.
“I’m in the mood for something with a little more kick.” I feel myself soaring through the air.
Kate raises an eyebrow. “Too bad they don’t serve alcohol to minors at Rosie’s.”
The entire chalet fades out of focus. Even the table by the fireplace. “Yeah, too bad.”
Gravity has me in its grip and is pulling me, down and down and down toward the landing strip where maybe, just maybe, Kate is waiting for me. “My parents are going to be skiing for hours. I don’t suppose you’d want to raid the minibar in my room?”
Kate taps the silver ring on her index finger against the side of her cocoa mug and smiles.
I walk with Kate, head high, through the cafeteria and past the table by the fireplace. We grab our coats in the locker room and step outside into the brisk late-afternoon air. It’s a short walk from Rosie’s to Eagle Ridge Resort, but it feels like miles. We walk past Papa Charlie’s where the thump of music is only slightly softer than the creaking of gondolas overhead on their cables as they carry skiers to Summit Chalet. For once luck is with me and Jack is working the front desk, grinning like mad at the sight of me with Anyone Other Than Blair.
I do a quick self pat down and try to look confused. “Sorry.” I approach the counter. “I think I lost my key card on the slopes. Could you give me another?”
Jack runs a hand across her cropped black hair, performs a full body scan of Kate, and grins at me. “That was condo 103, the suite with the Jacuzzi, right?” she asks.
“Right,” I say.
Jack punches a few numbers into the computer and holds out a key card to me. Her latest tattoo crawls up her hand.
Lean in to your…
The last word disappears beneath the cuff of Jack’s uniform shirt, but I don’t need to see it to complete the phrase.
Death. It’s what my father teaches every member of his ski jumping team, the Lab Rats.
I take the key card and grin at Jack. “Thanks.”
“No prob. Have fun.” Jack winks and I could kill her.
The first difference between Blair and Kate becomes evident as we walk the short distance toward condo 103. Blair chatters. Endlessly. Like it’s her personal crusade to kill all silence, all suspense, all surprise.
Kate walks quietly, her hand swinging by her side and brushing up against mine often enough to make me wonder. Not often enough to make me know.
We reach the condo and I slide the card into the keypad. The light turns green and my hand closes on the handle. I am about to pull the door open when Kate’s hand closes on mine. It’s a question and I answer it by letting my thumb run across her finger and over the delicate design of her ring. Kate lets go and I pull open the door. Together we step into the room and let the door close behind us.
As usual, Kate doesn’t wait to take in the view. “That line about the minibar was bullshit, right?”
I nod and say nothing.
Neither of us reaches for the light. I stare at the dark shadows that outline the bed, at Kate in the mirror above the Jacuzzi as she turns toward me. As her arm slips behind my back. As her hand reaches for my face.
It’s like a dream or a TV show, watching Kate move in the mirror, but the illusion shatters because then the real Kate is in my arms—her mouth on mine, her hand on my breast over my clothes, and everything becomes far too real.
I pull away and Kate crosses the room to stand beside the bed.
“After you,” I tell her, obeying the stronger of the two needs at war within me.
Or be led.
Kate unbuttons her flannel shirt and stands in front of me, silently, in a gray tank top. She stands there and lets me take in the exactness of her: broad shoulders, lean arm muscles.
Kate does not blink when she looks at me. “Now you. One of us takes something off. Then the other. Deal?”
The other need, the one that is hot and located between my legs, makes the decision for me. “Deal.”
I reach for the hem of my shirt and pull it over my head. It shifts my sports bra and the air, when it hits, is as shocking as the position I’m in. I drop my shirt at my feet and yank my bra back in place.
This girl gets nothing from me for free.
“Your turn.” I stare at her.
Kate laughs, slips off one ring, and lays it on the bedside table.
“The fuck?” I take a step forward, but Kate stops me with two words.
I glance at the remaining rings on her fingers and sigh.
I take off my shoes.
Kate slips off a second ring.
I fumble with buttons and zippers but eventually my pants drop to the floor and I step out of them and stand there in nothing but socks, cotton underwear, and a sports bra.
A third ring joins the first two on the nightstand.
This girl is going to be the death of me.
Finally, when I am in nothing but my underwear and one sock, Kate pulls off her tank top. When I am barefoot, she sheds her pants.
And that’s when I discover another difference between Blair and Kate.
Blair is all Victoria’s Secret push-up bras and lace thongs—the perfect fuckable angel. Or so I always thought.
Until Kate stands in front of me in nothing but a pair of men’s jockey shorts. Who is this girl? What have I gotten myself into?
Kate sits on the bed. I move to sit beside her, but she loops her arm around my back and pulls me onto her lap until we are tits to tits, and I discover the biggest difference of all between Kate and Blair, the one that makes me unlearn everything I thought I knew.
Kate puts her hand on the inside of my thigh above my knee. I hold my breath while she slides her hand up my leg.
“Breathe,” she tells me as she presses her mouth over the dip at the base of my neck, her tongue hot and wet on my skin. Her hand moves closer. And then closer. “Ellie, breathe,” she says again and I do.
In shallow, trembling breaths that leave my head spinning, I stare at her hand as it inches closer until her fingers brush against the elastic edge of my underwear and every part of me freezes. My legs, my arms, my lungs.
“It’s okay,” Kate whispers into my neck. “I’ve got you.”
The freezing melts into trembling.
Her fingers flick over damp fabric and I gulp in a deep breath.
“Ellie?” she pulls back and looks at me, the unasked question written on her face.
I nod. She slips her finger between cotton and skin.
Kate keeps her eyes on me as she delves between, then in, while the war of the dueling needs rages within me, stronger than ever.
Or be led.
Her free hand reaches for my breast. My muscles contract. All of me contracts. The earth tilts on its axis.
This is all wrong! I want to shout as she pinches my nipple. I give. You take. You’re supposed to lie there and chatter away until I make it impossible for you to speak. That’s how I know I’m any good at this. Don’t you know that?
Kate, I discover, does not know that, and the words don’t come—though I do. Fast and out of control, in a wash of white, I come and I come and I come until I collapse against Kate, my head on her shoulder, sweat dripping between my breasts, and without a single thought of Blair.
When the sparkling white starts to spin away I open my eyes, brush away the beginning of a tear on my face, and pray to die right there in her arms.
Later, much later, Kate and I leave condo 103 with the minibar, the Jacuzzi, and me fully drained. Even so, I’m not ready for our night together to be over. There’s the small matter of turning my world right side up by going down on Kate, but her cell phone has been pinging texts for the last hour and Kate’s mom is past accepting excuses. It sucks, but there’s not a damn thing I can do about it so I walk Kate back to the lobby of Eagle Ridge where a smirking Jack watches my every move from behind the front desk. Jack, I ignore. The awkward silence that opens up between Kate and me? I wish I could.
I shift my weight from my left foot to my right. Back to my left. Jack coughs. Kate grins. I slide my eyes to the glass door behind Kate that leads to the parking lot and stare at my reflection.
Some Twilight Zone version of Eleanor Engebretsen stares back at me, messed up inside and out, and Jesus fucking Christ, I don’t recognize myself. Who is that girl? The one who got dumped for some guy? The one who let some other girl tit-tickle her into submission? No fucking clue.
Kate’s pocket pings angrily again and she pulls out her cellphone and scans the text. “I really gotta go, Ellie,” she says.
I look at Kate. At her mussed-up hair. At her slight overbite. At the laugh lines around her gray-blue eyes. It isn’t like I’m unaware I’m botching the chance of a lifetime here. Another round with Kate is probably mine for the asking. Maybe two if I’m lucky and she’s in town for a few days. Fuck. The old me, the pre-Blair me, would have been all over that shit.
Kate reaches for the door handle and my stomach flip-flops. I can practically hear Jack screaming in my mind, but the words will not come.
“I had fun,” Kate says.
I nod. Pathetic. Trust me, I know.
“’Bye, Ellie.” Kate smiles and then she pulls open the door and walks out of my life. I watch her high step through the snowy sidewalk, growing smaller and fainter as she recedes into the darkness. My head pounds. My chest tightens. My voice pushes its way up my throat and out of my mouth.
“Wait!” I try to shout, but it comes out like a squeak. Not that it matters. Kate is too far away to hear me.
It takes Jack about .002 seconds to abandon the front desk and rush me. “What the fuck was that?” She stares at me. “Since when do you choke?”
The BFF code according to Jack demands I spill my truth and so I do. “Since now, I guess.”
Jack’s eyes dart to Kate who has reached the parking lot. She takes a step toward the door and something inside me snaps.
“Oh no, you don’t.” I block Jack, which may be the stupidest thing I’ve done all night. Jack, I know, could snap me in two without working up a sweat.
“Say her name,” Jack plants her hands on her wide hips.
“Kate,” I say.
“Mmmbeeep. Play again.”
I know perfectly well what name Jack wants me to say. But I can’t yet. It still cuts too deep on the way out.
“This is for your own good, El.” Either Jack’s reactions have gotten quicker or mine have gotten slower because she steps past me easily and yanks the glass door open. Horrified, I watch her sprint down the sidewalk and rush Kate in the parking lot. She must have hollered something because Kate stops and turns to look at Jack. And then Jack is talking and big Italian gesturing toward the lobby where I’m silently wishing a plague of ingrown pubic hair on my best friend.
Kate nods. Seems to say something. My imagination goes wild, but then Jack digs into her pocket and pulls out a little piece of paper and a pen. Kate scribbles something on the paper. It’s all horrible and awful, and I take vow after vow after vow to make anyone my new best friend. Even Geoffrey-with-a-G. Okay, maybe not him, but anyone else. Then Jack is stepping aside and Kate is climbing into her car and Jack is sprinting back to me, grinning like she broke the Olympic record for babe scoring, and I’m deciding if I’m going to punch her or kick her or both. Jack blows into the lobby with a gust of winter wind, but even that can’t cool me down.
“What the fuck do you think you were doing?” I clench my fists and glare, but Jack, unconcerned, slowly unfolds the piece of paper in her hands.
“My job, El. Surprisingly, I actually did my job. Did you know Eagle Ridge Resort rewards employees for every satisfaction survey they get filled out? They do. I get two per shift and there’s a ten-dollar bonus on my paycheck. Plus, it’s a good deal. Guests answer a few questions and in return we send them discounts to lure them back. Of course, they have to give us their full name, address, email, and phone number.” Jack kickstands her leg behind her and leans against the wall. “By the way, she rated her overall satisfaction seven out of ten.” She grins as she holds out the piece of paper to me. “I’m disappointed, El. I always thought you’d score at least an eight.”
“Thanks, I think.” I take the survey and step into the freezing night air, letting the door slam shut on the sound of Jack belly laughing. Ahead of me lies the parking lot and my car and the road that leads to home and my real life.
Such as it is.
“Eleanor?” My father’s voice sneaks through my closed bedroom door and interrupts a perfectly fine dream of long fingers and no rings.
“Stay,” I tell Kate as I hold on to the dream of her as long as I can. I should have said please because she slips away, slowly and then all at once, and I awaken to find myself lying in bed in the me-shaped indentation that has somehow grown too big or shrunk too small during the night.
I crack open my eyes to spot Blair smiling at me from the framed picture on my nightstand and, next to her, the unopened Christmas gift I bought her, a pair of one-carat diamond earrings paid for with money saved up from years of birthday and Christmas gifts, all cash and all earmarked for my future expenses as an Olympian. Considering her Christmas gift for me, the one I opened even though it wasn’t meant for my eyes, I feel like a total schmuck. The Eagle Ridge survey lies on the nightstand next to Blair’s picture and present. For a moment I wonder how Blair would have rated her satisfaction with me. Lower than a seven, I’d bet. Why else would she have left me for some dick?
I wriggle my toes and bend my wrists and try to find something that feels normal. Light crawls down the wall and falls like snow on the knotty-pine floor of my bedroom like it has every other morning of my life so far, but even that doesn’t feel normal.
Nothing has since Mom left.
I sit on the edge of my bed and pull my comforter around my shoulders. Cold creeps up from the floor and penetrates me. I take a deep breath and feel it: the mourning in this morning.
And then I hear it: one note, long and wailing. It attaches, one to another, until the string of notes transform into a song that morphs into an image that pushes into my mind. A woman. My mother. An older version of me. Standing in front of the living room window: golden head bent, ice blue eyes closed, body swaying, chin and violin fused, arm slowly pulling her truth from the delicate strings.
Until the day she found a truer truth.
We’ll talk on the phone every day, I promise. We can Skype. You can visit. Boston’s not so far away. Don’t look at me like that, El. It’s the Philharmonic, for God’s sake. This is my dream. Do you hear me? My dream.
Yeah, yeah, I hear you. But only because Dad plays that stupid CD with your solo every damn morning. Closest thing I’ve gotten yet to daily chats.
“Eleanor, you up yet?” Dad’s voice breaks on the last word and the hot prickling crawls through me until I want to shout at him. She’s gone, Dad. Gone. G-O-N-E. And she’s never coming back. Get over it.
But I don’t. Instead, I pick up the survey and open it. One phone call. That’s all it would take and I could lose myself in Kate’s arms again, but that’s the problem. Engebretsens aren’t allowed to lose. Ever. I put the piece of paper back on my nightstand and reach for the picture frame. Blair. Almost as beautiful as the future I imagined for us with me at PyeongChang, competing against the best, while Blair, in the stands, obnoxiously announces to everyone within earshot that her girl, Ellie Engebretsen, would be bringing home the gold. The back slides off easily and I hold her in my hands once more. What happened to that picture-perfect future? Was Blair always this shallow? This paper-thin? The prickling heat comes again and I grip the edges of the picture until they bend. It feels good and so I tear off a corner. And another. Until the whole of her lying, smiling face has been turned to confetti. Why should I be the only one shredded?
“Eleanor! Get out of bed now!” Dad switches into coach voice.
“Yeah, yeah. I’m up.” I stand and the bits of Blair flutter to the floor. “What’s the temp outside?” It’s a stupid question. Cold is cold is cold.
“Negative three. Wind chill of twenty-five below.”
“Fuck.” I take a deep breath and reach for the wicking shirt that lies crumpled on my floor. I follow with heavyweight fleece, a shell jacket, wool socks, and a pair of ski pants. The layers can’t protect me from all the harsh elements I face, but they do keep me warm. When I’m properly layered, I walk to my window and hold back the white curtain. Not one flake of snow has fallen overnight to soften the spaces and places of my life. The parking lot. The roof of the equipment shed. The jump and the landing zone. Even the great lake in the distance—all are bare and exposed, protected only by a sheet of hard ice. A few miles south of me, skiers are breaking the crust on Lutsen Mountain’s snow bed. A few miles north of me, Lutsen locals are sprinkling salt on sidewalks. I’ve spent my life here, somewhere between town and mountain, wishing for a fresh dusting of snow. It can’t soften all the hard things, but sometimes it cushions the fall.
I let go of the curtain and my silly wishes. It’s time to get on with my day.
There is no Christmas tree in our living room. No stupid elves sitting on shelves. No blinking lights or lit candles or packages wrapped in gaudy paper, and I’m fine with all that. Though I almost miss the diabetic-coma-inducing Christmas music when I find Tchaikovsky’s concerto, the second movement, looping obnoxiously. I hit the stop button on the sound system and in the silence that follows I hear Dad in the kitchen, assembling my breakfast.
That’s right, assembling. What he’s doing cannot be called cooking.
I swing open the door and spot Dad dropping raw eggs into the blender. One, two, three, I count them as I plant my tired ass on a stool at the kitchen counter and groan. Loudly.
“What happened to the music?” Dad asks as he shovels a heaping scoop of protein powder along with a liberal glurg of fish oil and a sprinkling of flaxseed into the blender. “I was listening to that.”
“It’s not healthy for you,” I tell him and prop my head on my hand, changing the subject back to something safe. “And what the fuck is wrong with a bowl of Wheaties? I thought they were supposed to be the breakfast of champions.”
“It’s not healthy for you.” He grins and hits the puree button on the blender. “Drink more.” He pours the green goo into a glass and shoves it toward me. “Swear less.”
“Mm.” I take a sip and screw up my face. “Fucking delicious.”
Dad, I figure, needs at least one person he can count on.
After I’ve chugged the breakfast of chumpions, I follow Dad downstairs to Gravity Lab, Dad’s ski school and pro shop. Unlike our apartment, which looks like it’s decorated with garage sale leftovers since Mom took everything she wanted with her, Gravity Lab offers the most carefully curated pro shop east of the Rockies. Thermodynamic clothing, action cams that mount on helmets, custom made skis—you name it, we’ve got it, which is plain smart business. Selling weekend skiers the kind of equipment that makes them feel like pros is a good way to fund my travel expenses to Continental and World Cup competitions. It also draws locals who are willing to pay tuition fees to be one of the Lab Rats, Dad’s elite ski jumping team.
Of course, while the rest of the Lab Rats are eating breakfast burritos and heading back to Lutsen High now that winter break is over, I get to spend my day following Dad’s meticulous training program, a grueling combination of weight lifting, plyometrics, cardio, and jump training. I’d love to go to school, too, but not Lutsen High. For years I’ve been begging Dad to enroll me in the Winter Sports School, a high school that runs from April to November, which frees up the winter months for athletic training and competition. Unfortunately the Winter Sports School is in Utah and Dad built Gravity Lab in Minnesota so I’m pretty much stuck taking private lessons with a tutor during the summer. It’s not ideal, but it has kept the board of education off our asses for the last three years, and after this summer I’ll graduate. At least I won’t have to wear a stupid gown or a square hat or a tassel.
Another so-called perk in the life of an Olympic hopeful.
By three p.m., I’m perched on the start bar ninety meters above the ground, skis strapped to my feet, and watching car after car pull into the parking lot in front of Gravity Lab. The pain in my side is sharp. My lungs feel shriveled in my chest, like they’ve given up hope of ever breathing warm air again. The muscles in my legs would go on strike if they had the strength to walk a picket line. This is my seventh and last jump before Lab Rat practice and the only thing keeping me going is the hope that Blair and Geoffrey have had the good sense to drop the team.
“C’mon, Eleanor.” Dad’s voice slices through the cold air. “Time to get a move on!”
Below me he stands on the coach’s stand parallel to the takeoff point, megaphone in one hand and cane in the other. Jack, at the bottom of the hill, has arrived early enough to watch my last jump.
Twenty-five below zero wind sinks its teeth into my exposed skin. Icy fingers scratch through every one of my protective layers. The tingling of fear—the true inrun to any jump—starts in my belly and spreads through my body.
“Make me proud!” Dad yells up to me.
It’s not a request. It never was.