On the day of the wreck, Kate endures the early-morning conversation by fixating on stuff she wouldn’t normally notice: wind blowing the grass so that each piece of it snags the morning light; tiny birds going cheeseburger, cheeseburger; deer picking their way across the road before people head to work.
For three hours, her roommate, Frankie, drives and talks: couloirs she’s skied, ski bums she’s boned, a free heli-skiing trip she’d lucked into where all she paid for in ten days was an $80 T-shirt.
“Skiing’s the reason I’ve been able to avoid drinking for a whole year,” she keeps saying. Three hours of this.
Steve had given them tickets to Montana’s only summer ski hill, which happened to be in Wyoming. Frankie hauls ass around a hairpin turn as her old four-cylinder Tacoma shudders up the mountain. Kate and Frankie are not really friends. They live in Steve’s house rent-free, along with an ever-revolving handful of other troubled souls. Frankie has lived there for a whole year; Kate, for three months. They go to all the same AA meetings, eat vegan-buttered toast with Marmite every morning at the same kitchen island, and watch the same TV show, Smothered, about too-close relationships between mothers and their kids every night after work. Neither Kate nor Frankie has not spoken with her mother in ten years.
Frankie, who wants to be an addiction therapist, calls out advice to Sunhe and what’s-her-name, a mother-daughter combo who spoon in bed and occasionally share bathwater, though Kate figures the show probably exaggerates this—“Enmeshed!” Frankie hoots, or “Get a room!” Kate can imagine her going on and on to future patients—poor people Kate imagines might return to crystal meth just to prove to this woman how horrible she is at her job.
“Whatcha writing?” Frankie says.
“Gratitude journal.” Kate has been grinding away at this sad, polka-dotted spiralbound for a week. It’s supposed to make her into a more positive person.
“I used to do one of those,” Frankie says. “Doesn’t work.”
Kate sighs. She has written: Steve, three months sober, fishing, and skiing in July.
Behemoth mountains rise on either side, giant mountains like messages the earth is sending to Kate: don’t drink.
Frankie careens around the last turns and pulls into the windy dirt parking lot.
The real reason for the trip: Frankie needs to move out. “Tell her we need our space,” Steve had said.
“Why don’t you tell her we’re hooking up?” Kate had asked. “It’s your house.”
But this was the one thing he’d asked her to do. He was overwhelmed at work, and Kate needed to practice setting boundaries anyway. He could work on setting his when he had more mental space.
A long-haired patroller asks them if they’ve used a Poma lift before. “You get hurt here, it’s a helicopter ride,” he says.
“Sure,” Kate says. “How hard can it be?”
The patroller frowns. “Everyone’s an expert, huh! Guess you don’t need me. You mess up, you’ll save yourself, is that it? You got a med kit hidden in those shorts?”
“Give it a rest,” says Kate.
“You used a Poma before? Yes or no?”
“First time,” says Frankie. So, he gives them the spiel: grab the bar, secure the disc between your legs. “…and if you eff up, just let go. Don’t try to hang on.”
“You know a patroller named Grace Scaggs?” Frankie says.
“Nope,” he says.
Frankie rolls her eyes. “We’ll find her,” she says, as though Kate’s worried.
At the hardwood flooring company, Kate works with people like this patroller, people with tattooed skulls like his smiling malignantly from their necks, people like Kate and Frankie, whose whole lives waver between let go and hang on. Steve didn’t understand this. He didn’t really get how being sober wasn’t just guzzling mocktails and belonging to a new club. Steve didn’t need to drink or smoke or anything. His addiction seemed to involve helping people, and he took more and more lost souls on, people who clogged his hot tub with their unbrushed hair and left the propane on in his ceremonial yurt.
Tickets affixed, they skate to the edge, where they have to navigate a steeper stretch before reaching the mellow slope below.
“Yikes,” says Kate. Her skis feel strange on her feet.
She thinks of quiet mornings without chatter. She worries her mind will be the one chattering, without Frankie’s voice filling up the space, talking endlessly of her rewired pleasure pathways, of how she feels drunk now when she smells a sunflower.
Frankie drops in and makes for a rocky section. Kate goes the easiest way.
At the bottom, they wait in line forever. The patroller was right. Some people can’t do the Poma lift. They’re too slow, failing to secure the disc between their legs before the pull gets too strong for them to hold on.
When Kate laughs at particularly stupid attempts, Frankie cuts her off.
“When you get older, you won’t feel the need to judge everybody all the time,” Frankie says.
“We’re the same age,” Kate says.
All morning they ski together. Frankie sticks to the bottom lift, which is the easier hill, and Kate doesn’t feel brave enough to try the steep section. “Skiing in July!” Frankie keeps saying. “Can you believe it?”
Kate wants Frankie to wipe out. Not just wipe out, but double-eject, slam end over end into the snow, bust a binding, even, so they can go home.
“You think the meat’s staying frozen?” Frankie says, around three. The lifts will run for another hour, and they’re sweating. A river of snowmelt trickles down the hill.
“Who cares?” says Kate. “She’s not here.”
“You’re hooking up with him, aren’t you,” says Frankie. She looks Kate up and down. “I can tell.”
“Okay,” says Frankie. “Fine. But I’m not stupid.”
“Okay,” says Kate. “What are you crying for?”
“I don’t know,” Frankie says. “I cry when I’m pissed.”
“Are you into him?”
“Of course not,” says Frankie. “He’s—I just want you to be careful.”
Kate decides not to tell Frankie about Steve wanting her to move out. Let Steve tell her about them. It’s his house, after all.
She follows Frankie under the cornices, over to the scary section where the snow turns to rock. She imagines herself plummeting down this narrow chute, walls of rock on either side. Her body still as her skis veer and slice beneath her. For once, she wishes she could be more like Frankie: bolder and louder.
Kate remembers how, every time she was about to get wasted, her stomach would jangle, out of fear and excitement. This feels the same way.
“I’ve seen you ski,” Frankie says. “You can do this. Quit worrying all the time.”
“Gross,” says Kate.
Kate thinks of her gratitude journal, of how many times she’s written Steve. Never once has she written Frankie. She takes a deep breath and points her tips down the fall line, surrendering to gravity as she flies down the chute, going faster and faster. There’s no room to turn until it’s too late.
“Oh, shit!” Frankie yells from about twenty feet away. Kate’s on the ground. Frankie is clicking off her skis, picking her way through the rocks toward her. Kate can’t move. But nothing feels immediately wrong, either.
Soon, the patroller from before, but she can’t seem to focus on him.
She becomes aware of what feels like a large wet sticker covering the entirety of the underside of her chest, the part on the inside of her breasts, facing toward her heart. Above, rhythmic thunder of helicopter blades, the sound of air whipped to a froth. Positive energy pulses in Kate’s knee, moves along her spine and up to her cranium and sticks there. The sun is a white emblem above her. A tiny pink spot of an insect, legs like hairs—an insect up here, in the snow?—climbed up and over individual hairs on her calf, a delicious prickling. She doesn’t think about Steve. The taste of a DQ Oreo Blizzard comes to her, the last thing her grandma bought her. She loves her mother and her sister, even if she rarely sees them. She had loved her father, too, even though she hasn’t seen him since she was five. She holds onto this love as the thunder takes her away.