Authors: T. Jefferson Parker
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For all you sons and daughters and the mountains you will face
Sincere thanks to the town of Mammoth Lakes for setting my muses free.
In particular, I'd like to thank Pam Lonza, Mammoth Mountain Ski & Snowboard Teams Administrator, for opening many doors and offering up so much of her valuable time to answer my questions.
Ben Wisner, Director of Mammoth Snowboard and Freeski Programs, showed me competitive skiing and snowboarding through the eyes of a coach. He also marked up my ski-racing scenes with an eye for verisimilitude that no outsider could have given.
Beat Hupfer, Mammoth Race Department Director, was generous with his time and very helpful with racing rules and regulations, politics and protocols, methods and myths.
Thanks to Mike Cook for always making me feel welcome in Mammoth Lakes, and for lending me his very real name for this work of fiction.
Many special thanks to John Teller, who grew up on Mammoth Mountain and was the sole American ski crosser in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. It was a privilege to watch you race, and to see your sport through the eyes of a champion.
Last for Oakley Hall, who so beautifully ran these slopes before me in
The Downhill Racers
All truth contained herein comes from them; the errors are mine alone.
Why are you angry and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.
âThe Lord to Cain, Genesis 4:7
Sit down and I'll tell you a story.
I shot my husband, Richard, twenty-five years ago, right here in Mammoth Lakes, California. It was the first homicide in twelve years in this peaceful little town, and the only one for thirteen years after that. A justifiable killing, in my opinion, but not in the judge's. I shot five times. The prosecutor argued that I didn't fire the sixth cartridge because I'd planned to use it on myself, which by some loopy legal reasoning meant that I was sane and knew what I was doing. That lawyer badly wanted me sane because he was out for my blood, and they can't spill crazy blood. Only the healthy stuff. But he couldn't prove a “plan.” I never considered using that sixth shot on myself. Not once. I told them so.
That's all behind me now, as much as anything is ever behind anybody, the past's not being even past and all that. Especially if you have children, which I do. Life's three great labors are to see what you've done, face the consequences, and adjust. People get stuck on those.
They will not look their acts straight in the eye.
They will not accept what they have coming.
They will not change direction.
I publish a weekly newspaper here in town,
Woolly is our town mascotâa woolly mammoth, of course. I was a part-time winter-sports stringer when I was young. Even after all these years I still get a little thrill every time I see my byline: “Story by Cynthia Carson.” This current work doesn't pay much, but the investigations and interviews, writing and photography, editing and layout (mostly electronic now, done right here on my red laptop) put me exactly where I want to be: in the real world. Whichâbeing in the real worldâis another thing that people have trouble with. They spend their whole lives trapped inside their own heads.
I've finished writing this week's edition of
I've got the coffee poured and waiting. It's two degrees outside, but there's a strong fire in the stove and I'm going to sit close by that fire and edit my articles, then proofread and make them perfect before I put the paper to bed. That's what we used to say years ago at the
“put it to bed.” Which meant get it to the print shop. Always on Wednesday, so we could circulate early Thursday mornings. Now I just push a key or two and the printer starts to whir. This is my favorite time of the week, when I get my last look at what I'm about to publish. When I can change things to make my stories right. When I can think about what's been going on in town lately.
This week, my lead story is about the wave of ski and snowboard theftsâalready up 300 percent this winter season over the last one, and it's only January. The thief/thieves are hitting all three Mammoth Mountain lodges, blending with the crowds, walking off with the rarely locked and often unattended items as if they owned them. He/she/they have a keen eye for quality. They do not take cheap gear or beat-up rentals. Last week's stolen skis and boards had a combined retail value of nearly eleven thousand dollars. The fact that six stolen pairs of skis and eight stolen snowboards are my lead story gives you some idea of what this town is usually likeâa quiet village most days, a bit of Eden hanging on to a dome of volcanic rock ten thousand feet in the air.
I actually had to go to the Mammoth Lakes Police Department to get those stolen property stats for
ânot easy for me to do after the unhappy hours I spent there, as you might imagine. They were courteous. I taught one of the sergeants to ski forty years ago, when I was fifteen, the year I was number one on the Mammoth girl's junior downhill ski team. I advised a detective to keep an eye on the Internet to find those skis and boards. Arrange a buy and you've got the criminals. He seemed to like the idea.
Like when he was a boy, Wylie Welborn crunched across his backyard through the snow and started up the steps of the deck. Climbing, he counted backward from his twenty-five years, five for each step, so when he got to the top he was five years old again, bellowing and red-faced with hurt and cold, having just skied a blistering run down the hill behind his house, a little heavy on the throttle, and crashed into the toolshed. Now he turned and looked at that hill, shrunk by time, white and luminous in the moonlight. The toolshed was long gone.
The deck light glowed faintly, and through a jawbone of icicles Wylie saw movement behind the kitchen window. Then he heard his mother's yelp, followed by distant sounds that could have been war whoops or shouts of joy.
Kathleen threw open the mudroom door, flew into Wylie's arms, and braced him as if she were wrestling a bear. She dug her fingers in his shaggy dark hair and kissed his bearded cheeks, knocking his beanie to the deck. Wylie hugged back, assaulted on either side by two teenage girls, who pulled at him as if he was divisible. They pushed him toward the door.
“Come inside, Wylie,” said Beatrice. “It's
“My boy is back!”
Mom,” said Belle, handing her brother his beanie.
“He certainly is.”
In the better light of the mudroom, they separated and faced one another, each trying in the sudden silence to comprehend what was what. Five years, communication but no notice of return, then this whiplash. Wylie saw the worry lines on his mother's face, more and deeper than before, and the new gray in her black hair. He saw that Beatrice, now seventeen and tall, still held her arms close to her sides, uncertainly. Belle, fifteen, had become pretty and now stood hip-shot, with both hands resting on her low-slung jeans.
“You allÂ â¦ look great,” he said.
“Oh, so do you, Wylie.”
“He looks okay,” said Beatrice.
“Okay plus,” said Belle.
“Where's Steen?” Wylie asked.
“Delivering a cake,” said Kathleen. “He'll be back any minute. You could have at least hinted that you were in the country, you know.”
He nodded and looked at them in turn but said nothing. Belle put on her flinty expression, backpedaled partway into the dining room, then ran at Wylie and launched herself into the air, feetfirst, like a high-jumper. He caught her under the knees and shoulders, twirled her fast around twice, and set her down. “Still makes me dizzy, Wyles.”
“You have five years to catch us up on,” said Beatrice. “Skypes and texting don't count.”
“I told you everything I was doing.”
Each with a hand on Wylie, the women guided him through the kitchen and into the living room. The house seemed small and flimsy in a way he didn't remember. And dark. His mother helped him off with his jacket and hung it on an overloaded coatrack.
“You're just in time to see Robert race the Mammoth Cup,” said Kathleen.
“Yeah, to watch him kick Sky Carson's sorry ass again,” said Belle.
“Mammoth Cup sucks without you in it, Wylie,” said Beatrice.
Wylie felt the extra chill in the house. It had always been a cold one. “Robert's not the only reason I came. I'm here to see all of you. I missed you. That's the truth.” His smile was mostly lost in his beard.
“Are you staying, like, forever?” asked Beatrice.
“I haven't figured out forever yet.”
“We could chain you up,” said Belle.
“Five years all over the world and no
?” asked Beatrice.
“I've got a few things out in my truck. Maybe something for you.”
“Afghani opium?” asked Belle.
“Enough of that, daughter. Wylie? Your room's full of file cabinets, outdated electronics, skis, and books. But the bed's still there, under all those boxes.”
“Perfect. You guys? I apologize for just showing up out of nowhere. I've been loose in the world awhile. So I'm not used to being responsible.”
“I'll bet the United States Marines loved that,” said Kathleen.
“They taught me different for three years.”
“I'm so glad you're not a marine anymore,” said Beatrice.
“Right,” said Belle. “Now you belong to us again. I just heard Dad's truck pull up. It's like the old days! Let's belly up and chow down.”