Bright white snow covered everything in sight, the brilliance a stark contrast to the gray expanse of clouds in the sky above. Icy winds brought with them the promise of even more snow. Here, high up in the mountains where no buildings could be seen, the air smelled crisp and clean.
Speeding down the snowy slope, Charlie Baker laughed as sharp bursts of air stung his cheeks. His skis kicked up puffs of powdery snow as he cut this way and that, hot on the trail of Jenna, his ski instructor. Her bright pink windbreaker served as a beacon, making it easy to follow her.
I’m really getting the hang of this!
Just as Jenna had taught him, he squatted low to pick up speed. A delightful ache had settled into his legs, and his heart pumped in exhilaration. Sure his instructor would give him hell later for going too fast, he dipped even lower as he gained on that pink jacket.
Charlie felt one of his skis turning inward. In an attempt to correct the ski, he wrenched his leg the other way. His body pitched forward and he landed face first in the snow, catching a frosty mouthful. Snow and sky alternated in his field of vision, as head over heels he tumbled down the slope.
When the ground disappeared beneath him, his stomach lurched, fear piercing straight through his heart.
He could see the ledge above him, shrinking as he fell. Wind whipped at his neck, tearing off his blue scarf and sending it slithering through the air. He drank in the sight, knowing it very well might be his last moment. Despair washed over him, and he braced himself.
A shock of cold hit his entire body as he landed on his side in a pile of snow. He heard a sickening crack, and searing pain shot through his forearm. His anguished scream echoed through the mountains. Bright sparkles twinkled at the edges of his vision, and he could do nothing but lay there panting through the pain.
After a short time, his breathing slowed and deepened as the initial agony subsided. Above him, his scarf still rode the wind, flitting and twirling as if it were dancing just for Charlie. Dislodging his uninjured arm, he slid his goggles up onto his head.
“I’m alive.” His lips curled upward, a mixture of smile and grimace. The scarf performed one last pirouette, then drifted down to land across his stomach.
What do I do now?
Prying himself loose from the snow pile took quite a bit of time. Every movement caused another shock of pain through his arm, and by the time he got to his feet his breath came in short gasps. Bile rose in his throat when he felt something grating together within his arm, and he had to fight the dizziness that crawled across his scalp.
It’s probably broken. But I’m alive.
One glance behind him froze his heart; not five feet away his ledge ended in a wide open space that led down to the bottom of a valley, where jagged rocks peeked out from under a blanket of snow. He spun, putting his back to the drop-off.
Don’t think about what could have happened.
Sound advice, but it didn’t stop his mind from conjuring up pictures of his body mangled on the rocks below.
Needing a task to keep his mind busy, he immediately started looking for a way back up. Now that he wasn’t sailing off the edge of it, the ledge above didn’t appear to be that high; if someone his height were standing on his shoulders, they could easily reach the lip. This gave him a glimmer of hope, and he looked around for a suitable climbing spot.
A short distance up, a couple of rocky outcroppings looked to be in prime position, with a tree branch hanging low enough that he might be able to use it to pull himself the rest of the way up. He felt confident he could make the climb, even with one arm.
Charlie snatched up his scarf and trudged through the snow on foot for a few steps before stopping in his tracks.
Wait, my skis!
A quick survey of the area only revealed a single ski, hanging over the side on the top ledge. He sighed—the other ski and his poles were nowhere to be found.
Cradling his left arm against his chest, he propped his foot up on the first rock jutting out from the side of the cliff. Inhaling, he filled himself with determination and sprang up to grab onto the second outcropping with his right arm. After planning his next handhold, he positioned his foot again.
When he pushed off, the rock underneath his boot crumbled, leaving Charlie flailing in the air once again. He slammed against the side of the cliff and down he went, sinking into the fluffy snow.
Charlie cried out in misery, curling himself into a protective ball around his arm. Pushing his face into his scarf, he sobbed into the moist wool.
Exhausted, pain sapping the rest of his strength, he fought his way back to standing. His legs shook, and his arm throbbed. He decided to head downward this time and seek an easier way to reach the top.
Maybe the ledges merge further down. Holding that hope first and foremost in his mind gave him the energy to keep moving.
Remaining alert, Charlie listened for any sounds above that might indicate another skier nearby, but only the sound of the wind rushing through the slopes reached his ears. On impulse, he cupped his hand to his mouth and called out.
“Help!” The word repeated itself many times over, fading and ending in a lonely silence that threatened to crush Charlie’s resolve. Shutting his eyes, he took a few deep, shuddering breaths to steady himself.
I’ll get out of this.
He trudged through the knee-deep snow, grunting with every step. A fierce ache ran from his thighs to his ankles, and his arm felt like he had knives wedged in between his bones. The shivering didn’t help, and he kept losing his balance and stumbling into the snow.
Tipping his head back, he tried to locate the sun to figure out how long he’d been down here, but the gray clouds made pinpointing its position almost impossible. He did, however, find a spot where the ledge dipped down a little closer to him, with a tree nearby that he could use for leverage.
“Perfect!” Spirits lifting, he navigated the snow and rocks toward the area. He had a hard time getting his stubborn legs to obey, but at last his leaden steps brought him to the tree. Rocks jutted out from the side of the cliff, almost looking like little stairs.
Putting his back up against the tree, he planted his foot as before and prepared to launch himself up to the next rock. Lifting a shaking arm, he pushed off the ground.
Alarm rose in his chest when his legs couldn’t hold his weight. He managed no more than a little hop before his knees gave out and he dropped back into the snow. Trying to grasp one of the rocks to pull himself up turned out to be futile.
My hand’s not working right. It feels numb.
Charlie squeezed his eyes shut, wracked with violent shivers. The throbbing in his arm rose to a powerful crescendo. He fought back the hint of despair that tried to corrupt his mind. His thinking had become difficult and his mind felt sluggish. It took sheer willpower to get himself to move his feet again.
“Think, Charlie.” He shambled over to another tree, talking to himself as a distraction, though his tongue felt thick and disobedient. “It’s j-just another ch-ch-challenge. Another adventure to… to write about. What a story this’ll m-make. J-just get through it, then you can go… b-back to the lodge, drink a bottle of… of wine, and s-s-soak in the hot t-tub.”
Moisture had long since begun to seep into his clothing, and his body convulsed. He could swear it felt colder down here than it did up on the slope. Collapsing against the tree, he sat down and pulled his broken arm to his chest.
I just need to rest for a minute, then I’ll keep looking for a way up. Ears and face burning, he pulled his cap lower and dropped his head back against the tree. Just a minute or two….
A single snowflake fell from the gray expanse above his head, the last thing Charlie saw before his eyes slid shut.