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Where tall tales, real and imagined, absurd and compelling, are served with a smile
The following is a work of fresh fiction. I have no preconceived notions as to where this story will go or end up. It will be a collaborative piece based upon input from readers. There will be two or three questions at the end for consideration. Any other freeform suggestions/contributions are welcome as well.
IT WAS COLD, but not too cold. Because it was early, the temperature hovered in the low teens. The air was crisp like cold water and biting like a wind in the bones. That would change as the day progressed with the march of the sun, the temperature easing into the mid-twenties.
Ian Ware didn’t notice the cold. There were parts of him that had grown numb to any sensation whatsoever in fact. Others served as lightning rods for sadness, remorse, and pain. Still as stone, he absently regarded the pristine peak reaching towards the sky before him. He wasn’t alone, which was fine. Other early risers let skis and boards fall to the firm snow, landing with a wet slap, as they waited for the aerial tram – nicknamed ‘The Red Heli’ – to start loading. It was mid-week at the renowned resort and out of the high season, so the numbers were relatively few. That, too, was fine.
Kneeling, he worked a loose strap on one of his bindings, ensuring that it didn’t require immediate attention. Satisfying himself that there were no structural concerns, he stood and began some light stretching, concentrating on his hips and shoulders. The legs would loosen themselves. Limber shoulders, however, were key to avoiding injury in the event of an unexpected fall. Throughout his relaxed movements his eyes loosely scanned the arriving skiers and snowboarders, vigilant without being overtly so. The colorful collection had grown to about twenty-five people. For the most part, they looked the part of experienced riders. Jackson Hole was a challenging mountain; not exactly replete with beginner fare. And, again, it was early…on a weekday…out of the high season.
There was a murmur of both sound and movement as the attendants opened the gates at the head of the line, announcing without words that the first tram was about to start loading. Like a cross between cattle and an elite military unit, the purposefully attired, world class athletes moved towards the promised land, their breath painting the air around them in vanishing clouds and their gear clattering softly.
Ware kept his eyes, hidden behind polarized goggles, active. Between the goggles and his helmet, as well as the moderate beard he had diligently cultivated and the controlled chaos of the moment, he had no concerns about being noticed. Moving loosely and quietly, he made his way to the loading area and carefully positioning himself so that he would have some degree of say as to where he stood once inside the one hundred person carriage. The expectant energy in those around him was palpable. A fast-moving storm had dropped half a foot of snow on the mountain the night before. Not enough to inspire a rash of local sick days, but enough to warrant the early start. Under normal circumstances, Ware – an avid snowboarder that had spent the better part of a quarter century honing his skills – would likewise be experiencing the kind of giddiness that the promise of a perfect day generated. But not on this day. He had come a long way and not just in terms of geography to find himself standing in that particular group, on that particular day, at that particular time.
The group began to tighten on itself, waiting for the pneumatic hiss of tram doors opening and the beginning of the loading process. To his left he looked down on a threesome of twenty-somethings. All three wore headphones tapped into their own personal soundtrack, conversation be damned. In front of him a young couple debated where to begin their day when they reached the top. To his right a solitary man with a deeply tanned face and top-end equipment patiently eyed the tram’s doors. Like Ware, the man was taller than the bulk of the group, perhaps an inch or two north of six foot. Ware was forty years old and the man next to him looked to be about the same age. If anyone were asked, they might presume the two middle-aged men were going up the mountain together that morning. Technically not true. Ultimately exactly so.
The hiss came and the doors slid open. A new surge rippled through the crowd, propagating throughout like a wave. Ware and the man next to him rode its energy and made their way inside the newly-built Red Heli. The tram was slightly more than half-full when the doors slid closed and the carriage began its nine minute speed-ascent that would cover over twelve thousand feet in length – over two miles – and more than four thousand feet in vertical. Through his goggles, he glanced to his right. The man from the line was standing next to him against one of the windowed walls. He was looking up towards the distant summit with the hint of a grin at the corners of his mouth.
Ware followed his gaze and after a moment said, “Could be a good one.”
“Could be a great one,” the man answered in a soft voice out of tune with his physical appearance. “Blue skies, fresh snow, temps just right…”
“And it’s mid-week,” Ware added.
He took a casual second look at the man’s equipment. The skis were high end, as were the bindings and boots. Ware knew that he was standing next to a serious skier. In general, most people that frequented Jackson Hole were serious skiers or boarders. It was simply that kind of mountain. On top of that, this individual actually owned a vacation home there. Serious indeed.
“Where you thinking about hitting?” Ware was asked. He pretended to ponder the question.
“I’ll probably do a few burns in Rendezvous Bowl. After that, I’m not sure.”
For the first time, Ware’s tram companion looked over at him. With little subtlety he appraised Ware’s board, attire, physicality, and general presentation, clearly trying to size him up from an ability standpoint. Reaching a decision, he said, “I like to kick off in Rendezvous myself. Are you riding alone?”
There was another moment of internal deliberation before the man said, “Want to hitch up and make some turns together?”
Ware went through the motions of considering the invitation. He looked out the glass to the trails below and then back up again. “Sure thing. The more the merrier.”
The man pulled off his right glove and extended his hand. “Trey Curren,” he offered. Ware removed his own right glove and took the man’s hand. The contact sent a distant jolt through him and for a split second he questioned his purpose that day.
“Mitchell Turner,” he said without raising his goggles up as Curren had done. If Curren thought it strange that Ware didn’t remove his own at that point, he kept the thought to himself. After all, nearly everybody else on the tram wore goggles in place, geared up and ready for action.
CURREN WAS GOOD. Fast, but in control…technically very sound. But so was Ware. The two actually complemented each other well as far as ability level. They took turns picking lines out of the terrain to follow, each trying to challenge the other. After a handful of long runs, they were both effectively warmed up.
Ware was breathing audibly from the exertion of a long pitch when he raised a suggestion. “How about running it all the way out to the bottom and jumping on the tram again? Maybe do some hiking.” From the summit of Jackson Hole, it was possible to hike out along wind-blown ridgelines to access technically demanding backcountry terrain. It was strictly experts only. The kind of challenge a man like Curren could not turn down.
Trey Curren fixed his gaze on Ware’s hidden face for a moment before glancing up mountain to the west where the ridgeline presided over a steep, rocky pitch. Without turning back he said, “Sounds like a plan.”
After another ride on the tram – this carriage considerably more full – Ware and Curren found themselves working hard as they traversed the long ridgeline that snaked around a steep bowl to even steeper chutes.
“So what’s your business, Mitchell?” Curren asked through somewhat labored breaths.
Ware stared at Curren’s back as the man trudged along in front of him. “I’m in importing,” he lied.
“What do you import?”
“Natural stone. Marble, limestone, granite, travertine. That kind of stuff.”
“All over, really. Granites from China, Brazil. Marbles from Italy. Limestone and travertine from Turkey and Egypt.”
“Sounds like you must travel a lot.”
They were quiet as their path steepened with sheer dropoffs to their left side, requiring their full attention. Once they had negotiated the hazardous section, Ware asked, “How about you?”
“Well,” Curren began. “I have some diverse holdings. Mainly in commercial real estate and emerging technologies.”
“What kind of technologies?”
“Oh, this and that. I wouldn’t want to bore you.”
A strong gust of wind carved up the ridgeline and forced the two hikers to stop and lean into it. Spindrift powder from below rode up the wall of the ridge and obscured Curren and Ware intermittently. As they waited for the wind to settle, Ware took the opportunity to look behind them, scouting out the ridgeline for other hikers. There were none, it being mid-week…out of the high season.
Nearing the end of the cirque they were on, Ware moved ahead of a resting Curren. He had a specific spot in mind that he had selected earlier in the week. As he walked around him, Curren peered over the cornice that hung out over the chutes below. His weight was forward, teetering towards the drop beneath him. “What do you think?” he asked without turning.
I only think of one thing now. Always. His eyes melted a hole in Trey Curren’s back as his mind raced through image after image from that morning two years in the past. By sheer force of will, he stepped away and proceeded farther along the ridge. “I’ve been meaning to run a line down here on the end,” he called out as he moved.
Curren looked up and past him. “There aren’t any other chutes over there.”
“Oh no?” Ware asked tauntingly as he continued on. He sensed Curren hesitating behind him and then heard the crunching sound of ski boots biting into snow, following Ware’s lead.
Passing over a cluster of jagged rocks, Ware set his snowboard down on a natural shelf and delicately picked his way down to a patch of snow that could not have been more than three feet to a side. From above, Curren called down, “What have you got?”
Ware didn’t turn back. He pointed down and to his right towards a point that Curren would not be able to see from his position. “Down there.”
Following his new friend’s lead, Curren left his skis on the rock shelf and made his way down to the perch. When he arrived, he leaned out over the edge. Directly below their position, a cliff face dropped in excess of one hundred feet onto an outcrop of exposed rock. Beneath the outcrop, another tall dropoff awaited.
“I don’t know, Mitchell. Looks kind of desperate over here.”
Ware kept his face turned away, his emotions bubbling to the surface. “Not there,” he managed to say. “Over here.” He gestured to the side again and made room for Curren to move past him in order to get the right angle. He watched as Curren carefully eased up to the edge of the perch, trying in vain to spot the elusive chute that Ware had spoken of. A handful of loose rock skittered over the edge at his feet, falling for what sounded like an eternity.
“I’m not seeing anything,” Curren called, still searching.
Ware stepped behind Trey Curren and established solid footing. Again the memories rose unbidden, assailing him with doubt and self-recrimination. Ultimately, his resolve proved immovable.
“Huh,” Ware said vacantly. “Maybe I was wrong.” He raised his goggles up onto his helmet, exposing his face for the first time, and shifted his weight forward.
“Either that or crazy,” Curren began as he turned. When he saw the full albeit bearded face of the man he knew as Mitchell, his breath caught.
Ware watched a flood of reactions on Trey Curren’s face. Recognition, surprise, confusion, denial, and finally, understanding and fear. His eyes squinted and his head came forward.
“Ian?” he asked, his voice even softer than usual.
Ware stared unblinking into Curren’s eyes. “You took something from me, Trey.”
Curren leaned forward and raised his hands, almost in supplication. “Ian, I,” he began.
“You took something from me, Trey. I aim to take quite a bit more from you.”
Ware moved with alarming speed, pushing off a large rock behind him and impacting Trey Curren’s chest with both of his open hands. In his clumsy ski boots and as close as he was to the edge, Curren had no chance. His body was thrust out into space where it seemed to hold for a moment in a suspended state of terror before plummeting towards the rocks below. There was no scream – falling people rarely scream because every inch of their body – including the larynx – tenses up in anticipation of impact. Instead, his arms flailed uselessly as instinct drove him to turn his body so that he could face the direction of his movement.
Ware did not watch the fall itself. But he heard its termination. Between the skier’s boots and helmet, and the wet crack of bone striking rock, the noise was crisp and loud. Ware again checked that the ridgeline was empty. Then he looked over the edge. Any snow visible amongst the rocks ten stories below was stained red in a five foot radius. There was nothing elegant about the orientation of Trey Curren’s body. He was a twisted picture of agony. Ware did not rejoice at the sight. A small part of him even felt sick at what he had done. But the greater part of him understood that he had done what was necessary. What was right. Furthermore, he carried with him the burdensome knowledge that this was just the beginning.