THE snow beneath my skis shattered. Cracks opened below me—the solid snowpack disintegrated and slid. Snow would crash down the mountain, carrying away anything, everything in its path. Unimaginable tons would roar down the chute where two peaks met. Only the bedrock of the mountains could withstand the avalanche. Nothing on the surface would defy it, certainly not puny specks of humans.
I hurtled toward the two skiers, bellowing, “Get off the slab! Get off the slab!” They weren’t moving fast enough. My training screamed Get away! Leave them both! My heart said No! but I could only save one. Acting before I could think, I swooped to the side, catching one man. He stayed on his feet, else I’d have to leave him. Or die with him, if we didn’t reach the trees.
My survival vest would inflate into a big red ruff. I might live if the slide caught us. He wouldn’t. It would keep me at the surface. Him, too, for a few seconds. The roaring maelstrom would tear us apart.
The mountain detonated before we reached the trees. White spume hid the sky; the snowpack exploded in a deadly bellow. The hill fell apart beneath us.
We fought to reach higher ground. I lost my grip—the snow stole him from my hand. He screamed, tumbling downhill. The pounding of the avalanche drowned any words. I could only watch helplessly from the trees, yelling, “Take my hand!” My outstretched arm wasn’t long enough. Fifteen arms wouldn’t be long enough. The chaos swallowed him.
Did it last a minute? An hour? I couldn’t tear my eyes from where he had been. The horror—eternal—I’d see his panicked face forever.
The mountain quieted. I sped to the faraway hillock in the snow, horribly certain of what I’d find. Like a compass needle to north, I skied straight to that mound, tearing the shovel off my belt. “Be alive!” I begged, throwing scoops of snow behind me. “Be alive!”
The snow, hard as concrete, came away in clumps as I dug. Finally, blond hair and a red jacket appeared—I dug faster and could finally brush the snow from his face. “Breathe!” I commanded. “I’ll get you out!”
His eyes were open, but he was still. Too still. No breath. No movement. Kurt looked up sightlessly from the snow. I hadn’t saved him after all.
“No!” I screamed to the uncaring mountain that threw my words back to me:“Nooooooo!”
I WOKE up screaming, my heart thudding painfully in my chest. It took me a few minutes to breathe normally again. Unfortunately, I probably also woke up everyone else on the other side of the paper-thin walls. Wapiti Creek might be sensible about providing shelter to the resort employees in these three story apartment buildings on the edge of town, but they hadn’t spent the money to make them as sturdy or soundproof as the million-dollar condos or fancy hotels.
“Shut up, McAvoy!” My neighbor usually called me Mark. A month and a half of sharing my nightmares had reduced him to last names and pounding the walls.
I wasn’t screaming because I wanted to, damn it! I didn’t wake like this two or three times a week because I enjoyed it! The avalanche was real, but not the way I dreamed it this time. Someone died in the snow but not Kurt, the ski instructor whose face I saw tonight. No, Kurt had fled down the black diamond chute. Jake and I truly reached the trees and held each other tightly while the mountain went berserk. We survived, clutching each other in the illusion that my one avalanche vest would keep us both at the surface. The snow would have ripped us apart, but we held each other all the same.
The one who died was Ulf, and I couldn’t really argue that the world was worse off for his loss. Ulf had been shooting at Kurt, who escaped before the slide started. Jake knocked him down before he could kill anyone, and then I swooped in to drag Jake off the slab. Ulf had had to look out for himself.
It was Ulf’s face that we finally revealed in the snow, staring and sightless, frozen and broken. It took Marty, the other patrollers, and me hours to find where he was buried. Hours that gave him time to suffocate in his own carbon dioxide exhalations, time to lose all body function from the severed nerves in his spine. The avalanche snapped him like a twig—even if we’d found him fast, he would never have survived being loaded on the stretcher. I saw him again in my sleep, white-faced and still, more often than I cared to think about, but he didn’t make me scream in the night.
No, the screaming nights happened when I got Jake or Kurt mixed up in the dreams. There were nights where the rescue that really happened got muddled with the real death, nights where it didn’t work out that Jake and I were still standing when the snow stopped moving. He and I got far enough up the side of the slope that the avalanche missed us, and we hadn’t known until later that Kurt made it out okay.
Jake kissed me for joy when the snow settled back to the ground and the sky turned blue again. I kissed him out of joy and for wanting in those moments, knowing it was all I’d ever get. He brushed the snow off my face and kissed me, glad to be alive, and if he hadn’t immediately thought of Kurt, he might have kissed me some more. I wanted those kisses; I wanted a chance with him, a chance that wouldn’t come. Since the avalanche, it was crystal clear I had no chance with Jake.
I screamed every night I dug Jake out of the snow.
I screamed louder on nights I dug up Kurt. It wasn’t just the horror of his death, it was hatred of myself. The nights Kurt died, I asked myself if I hadn’t tried hard enough, if I dug too slowly. If I let him die. For a chance with a man who would always wonder if I hadn’t tried hard enough. For a chance that wouldn’t exist.
The nights Ulf died were almost good nights by comparison.
I sat bolt upright on awakening, with my heart thudding against my ribs. The dream was especially vivid this time. Every strand of blond hair showed clearly against Kurt’s pale forehead; little balls of snow clung to lashes that didn’t blink them away. I couldn’t shake the feeling that death had visited for real tonight—lying back down wasn’t going to happen. I tried, but the bedding was clammy and the sense of doom too strong. Pulling on a pair of flannel pants, I thought I’d go sit on my big easy chair in the living room, but my feet took me farther.
The building was quiet at two a.m., the hall lights almost too bright. I padded the length of the third floor to the central stairs. One flight down and then about halfway across the other wing of the building brought me to a door I had passed through before, bringing Jake home.
He’d been drunk and upset; I suggested taking him upstairs until he sobered up. He went home instead, to a Kurt who was angry and upset for reasons that came out only after Kurt and I smacked each other around awhile. I got a black eye to commemorate our better understanding. I might get another one tonight.
Because I had to knock on that door. I needed to see for myself that the men who lived on the other side were alive and well, and then I might be able to sleep again. If not tonight, then some other night, but the need to see them both, to touch them and feel the warmth of life, pulled my hand up to the wood. I knocked.
Three soft raps on the door, and only then did I realize I had no idea what to say, how to explain being on their doorstep in the wee hours.
The door opened and Kurt stood before me, puzzled and knuckling one eye. “Hey, Mark. What’s the matter?” He opened the door wide enough to let me into the dimly lit living room. He wore a T-shirt and soft pants, and his blond hair was tousled from sleep, or maybe from having Jake’s hands in it. I didn’t want to think about that.
“I….” I didn’t have any words yet. Maybe my haggard expression said something. “I needed….” I needed to get out of there. Jake was coming around the corner, pulling down a T-shirt he probably hadn’t been wearing a few minutes ago. His flannel pants hung around his hips at a dangerously low level, more suited for a jockey than a six-foot-tall hunk. His brown hair stuck up on one side from the pillow; his wide brown eyes grew more alert and filled with concern with each second I stood stammering.
“Mark, are you okay?” He exchanged a quick glance with Kurt before focusing on me again.
I shook my head wordlessly. I wasn’t okay, but I didn’t know how to say it, and now that I was here with two handsome, warm, live men, I felt unbelievably stupid that I’d let a nightmare chase me down the hall to them.
“Hey, you’re with friends,” Jake said, placing his hand on my upper arm. His touch burned. I’d spent a lot of hours imagining his hands on me, and now he was touching me, in front of his lover. I knew they were lovers—Jake had told me right off that he wasn’t available, but he left the door open for friendship. I never needed friends as badly as I needed them now.
“Yeah.” I didn’t move, but Kurt came a step closer and took my other arm.
“Crappy night?” he asked.
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. I looked at him straight on, seeing finely modeled features and blue eyes framed by wavy blond hair, and nothing but concern.
“We’ve had one or two of those. And our reasons aren’t as good as yours.” Kurt, Jake, and Marty—who was downstairs snuggled up to Chelsea, no doubt—were the only ones who knew what really happened the day of the avalanche. The official story didn’t tell the half of it. “How can we help?”
“Just….” I lifted a hand to his face. Somehow, I knew that if I touched Kurt, rather than Jake, it would be okay, that he’d understand it was warmth and life I needed. I stroked his face, feeling the stubble on his skin, tracing his features, letting my fingers follow the curve of his cheek. He allowed it, saying nothing as I trailed my fingers down his neck and then placed my hand flat just below his breastbone. “Just keep breathing, okay?”
He nodded and took a large breath, letting me feel the rise and fall in his chest, never taking his eyes from my face. “I will.” Kurt breathed for me, and Jake let him, his hand still on my arm. The cold lump in my belly thawed a tiny bit with every movement in Kurt’s chest, proving my fear tonight was only a nightmare. “Did I stop for a while?” he asked after a time.
“Yeah. Some nights it’s Jake.” I closed my eyes, trying to chase those memories back, but Jake had a better way to do it. He took my other hand and placed it on his chest, letting me feel the ribs and muscles pull the air in and push it out of him.
“Had a few of those nights myself. Kurt wakes me.” Jake hadn’t taken his hand from mine; he pressed it more tightly against his body with each breath.
I wished someone would be there to wake me before I got to the screaming stage. There was no one to share my bed or my life—the only one I’d been interested in had his hand over mine right now. I’d been in a lot of beds, but not with anyone who cared enough to wake me unless I disturbed him. Sleeping alone was better than that, but the sheer barrenness of my life put a catch in my throat.
Jake misinterpreted it. “Mark, have you ever mourned Ulf?”
“Not sure why I would—he was no friend of mine.” Ulf had no friends I knew of. “Just keep breathing.” I spoke both to them and to me, because my chest had gotten tight.
“He sure was no friend of ours either, but he died, and we were there and involved. My nightmares didn’t stop until I thought about that for a while.” Jake pressed my hand against his chest a little harder. Kurt breathed more deeply.
I wouldn’t grieve, but I could think. “He died because he was stupid, greedy, and mean. He died because he was trying to kill people. Kill you. I know he was shooting. The mountain would have hidden the body for him—we might have not known to look.” I swayed a little, trying not to yell into the quiet night. “He died, and we didn’t. Except we all nearly did. Because of him.”
“But we didn’t,” Jake pointed out. “Because of you.”
“Do you remember what Marty said the day it all happened?” Kurt asked quietly. “I do.”
“That I saved the right people?” I asked bitterly. Wrapping my arms around myself might have kept me from shivering.
“Yeah.” Kurt didn’t release my hand. “You did.”
“I did, but it wasn’t enough.” There was a lump the size of a mountain in my throat now; the words came out in a whisper.
“You would have saved us all if you could.” Jake gathered me against his chest, wrapped me in those strong arms. “I know you would have.” He pressed my head against his shoulder. “Even Ulf.”
“Even him,” Kurt said from behind me, where he’d come very close. Close enough to press against me, to hold me from behind with his own strong arms.
Together they held me and let me cry at last for the man I couldn’t save.