A ski trail the day after heavy snow is blinding. Near impossible to see, if there is enough fresh powder. A thick seal over whatever laid there before, so that it hides everything, the sun reflecting back so that you can’t look directly at it. It’s fresh, new, clean, white as purity. White as the eye’s sclera.
Sclerae are what I see every night, or have since that day. And irises. His irises. The vibrant blue, with flecks of gray, enveloped in the pure white of the sclera.
Wide and unblinking. Staring out at me from the thick cover of fresh snow.
My alarm went off.
I was still in my bed, with my eyes still shut. I was still. Seared into my eyelids were Jacob’s eyes, like the flash of a camera I didn’t expect.
It happened four weeks ago. I’ve heard that memory fades, or you can replace memories with false memories. Were his eyes even open? I argue with myself, but I know what I remember is true. They were the color of the first clear sky after a snowstorm.
We had just had a snowstorm the week he disappeared. Every night the question loomed over us, dense, gray snow clouds in our minds: what will our small mountain look like when we wake up? What tree roots will it decide to slyly cover, to surprise an unexpecting skier on their way down? What tree will finally have a branch collapse under the weight of snow? What animal prints will be clear as day from the ski lift above—rabbit? moose? Something more carnivorous? What child’s ski marks will be covered, making it harder to find him?
I shook my head, interrupting the now-constant loop in my mind. I wasn’t looking at Jacob’s eyes; I opened my eyes and stared at the white of my ceiling, the fan a dark pupil in the center. I noticed the time before I heard my alarm—at 6:03, it must have been going off for the last three minutes. I made a mental note to change the sound to something harsher, and got up, sticking my feet in the slippers I left in the same spot every morning.
I hate having cold feet. Really, I hate being cold at all, but as a ski patroller, it was assumed I was going to be cold many, many times before the end of the season, which was a blissful month away. What had started as a gap year of hiking before grad school turned into the last five years of working at one of the biggest ski resorts in the country. I used to love this job, love the escapism of the mountain. Now, I had Jacob.
Five years as a ski patroller, and I had never experienced a death. I had seen a broken nose from running into a tree, blood dotting the snow; I had seen wrist bone that had punctured through the skin; I had seen frostbite that ended in amputation, but Jacob was my first. My death, my tiny ghost to carry with me forever.
Jacob was Sterling Resort’s first death, too. The resort had been running for nearly sixty years, but Jacob was the first they had to claim. Not that people hadn’t died in the ambulance leaving the resort, or free-skied off the resort’s property and got lost or died over the years, but Sterling didn’t have to take responsibility for those. They would release a quiet statement to the family full of words like “tragedy” and “condolences,” but their insurance and reputation stayed the same. Which is why they were being so careful here, so nervous and cautious before saying anything, or changing anything, and why I was heading to a meeting with the owner before returning back to ski patrolling this morning.
I had already given my statement to the police and spoken to the local newspaper, my supervisor, and other suits at the resort. I didn’t care. I was pushed from person to person who asked mostly the same questions. I didn’t know why the owner needed to see me instead of hearing my story secondhand, but I had the same autopilot story at the ready. Detached and vague.
I was surprised when I walked into the main village, into the office building disguised as a log cabin, up to the third floor where all the conference rooms were, to find Ed Burnor, the owner, with a woman I had never seen before. I had met Ed once earlier this year, at a party celebrating the resort’s fifty-fifth birthday. Then, he had obviously been partaking in the various over-sugared, themed beverages: The Bunny Trail, Glade Runner, and Snowstorm seemed particularly popular. His normally composed and pale face was ruddy, and he had taken off his suit jacket and rolled up the sleeves, even though I was still freezing from the draft that kept sweeping in from the constant movement of people through the main door. I had been looking for one of my coworkers, and Ed ran into me while my neck was angled the other way. He had sputtered apologies, smiling wildly, and I wondered how he managed to escape from the nucleus of important people and make it over to us, proletariat central, where all the instructors, patrollers, mechanics, and hospitality workers were turning the center of the room into a dance floor.
He seemed nice enough. He just didn’t seem remotely outdoorsy. He was the son of the founders, who had apparently made enough money to send little Ed off to some prestigious business school so he could come back and make Sterling even more successful. And he had, in a very business-like way. I heard his parents would ski the trails every morning and would conduct meetings in jeans.
So, he was different. I was okay with different. And the woman with him was different too. She had a thick, tweed-looking pantsuit on. Her hair didn’t have the trademark messiness that winter hat hair seemed to bring. Her cheeks were carefully shiny and rouged, unlike my accidental redness that came from wind chap.
She smiled thinly at me as I walked in before going back to the large folder that was in front of her. I saw the header of the police department on a few of the papers that her manicured hands were fingering through.
“Ms. Thompson, good morning,” Ed said to me standing up, his warmth as put on as the heat blowing through the vent directly above me.
“Lexi,” I corrected him, smiling back with the same fake warmth, “and morning,” I added, looking at the woman. Ed caught on.
“Oh yes, Lexi, meet Mrs. March. She’s one of Sterling’s attorneys.”
Mrs. March gave me another thin smile but did not get up. “Please sit, Alexandra.”
The formalness was cold, but I didn’t bother correcting my name. I sat in the closest chair to me, and pulled up to the conference table, across from Mrs. March, to the left of Ed, who started talking the minute I sank into the chair.
“Now. Lexi. We wanted to speak to you before we sent you back on the slopes today. I know this will be your first time back since the accident. I just wanted to make sure we made this as easy for you as possible.”
“Oh.” I looked at the both of them, who were both starting back in anticipation of a response. I had my police-approved version of Jacob at the ready. It slid quietly back down as I cleared my throat and started over. “Well, yeah. The past couple of weeks in dining were a change of pace. Nice, I mean. Not that I want that pace forever—bound to get bored in the dining room. Not that—not that I’m not grateful for it. . .” I cut myself off. I had officially wandered far from the approved story. Now I was rambling, and I was afraid of what I would say if I let myself go on. I didn’t want to talk freely about it. I wanted what was rehearsed, careful.
“Well, we are happy to give you whatever you need during this hard time,” Ed said, taking my drop-off as an opportunity to speak. “And speaking of which, we noticed that you did not take advantage of the grief counselor that we provided to the staff after the discovery of young Mr. Clay.”
Jacob, I mentally corrected. Mr. Clay was so formal for a six-year-old who had probably just learned to spell his surname. Who might have been learning to read, tie his shoes, memorize his address, and loved to go to ski school every winter break.
I heard a faint shuffle of paper. Mrs. March was looking at me, apparently waiting for me to speak. I shook that train of thought aside, and tried to respond quickly.
“Yes. Again, thank you for the opportunity, but I didn’t think it was necessary. I was. . . I am fine. I am ready to go back to work.” I said this, alternating between looking Ed directly in the eyes and looking at the top of Mrs. March’s head, as she was looking back at the papers in front of her.
“Well, we are very glad to hear that,” Ed said nodding, apparently content enough for my shallow performance of fineness. “Mrs. March, anything to add?”
At this she looked up, and I made real eye contact with her for the first time since I had sat down. Her eyelashes were fake, and in the corner, I could see where the glue had failed her and her real lashes had separated from the extension, which was hanging ever so slightly too long.
“Ms. . . Thompson. You realize that waiving your right to the offered therapy also waives your ability to take any legal action against Sterling Ski Resort for any damages, psychological or otherwise?” She blinked, and her eyelash quietly waved at me.
I processed this, as well as Ed’s slight lean in toward me as Mrs. March said legal.
“I think I understand? I don’t want to sue you, Mr. Burnor. I really don’t… yes, I understand.”
Ed looked at March, who nodded ever so slightly, and then he turned back to me, his fake smile plastered back on.
“Well, lovely,” he said, “perfect. You wouldn’t mind then, Lexi, signing this agreement to that statement?”
As he was saying this, March had slid a paper from the top of the stack over to him, who in turn slid it to me. I glanced down at the rows of legality quickly, saw the lines of yellow highlighter that indicated where I was to sign, and reached toward the middle of the table for one of the pens that was dressed up as a flower in a vase. I plucked the flower pen, signed quickly, and pushed the paper back to Mrs. March.
“Done,” I said quietly and stood up. The other two stood quickly after me.
“Excellent. Well, Ms. Alexandra, welcome back to work,” Ed said as he shook my hand.
“Lexi,” I responded, and turned to walk out.
“Oh, Lexi?” March called after me.
I looked back as I was putting my jacket back on.
“Please be careful out there.”
It’s not that I’m one of those people against therapy, or don’t believe in talking about my feelings. But Jacob wasn’t someone I was willing to share with the world, or, at least, with someone who would analyze the psychological impact those tiny blue eyes had on me. I knew what they did to me. I knew that they haunt me, that every orb and flash of blue brings me back to that moment of dread, that moment where, even in my thick red patrolling jacket and many base layers, I felt a cold slide down me as if an icicle was dripping directly above my head. Where the cold of the snow and the frozen body shot through my gloves as I wiped the snow back from the face to reveal blue lips and blonde hair that shone silver with ice. I already know.
I imagined the possible answers a therapist could give me as I walked across the village to the patrol lodge to check in, creating whole conversations with a counselor I’d created in my head. She was useless. Argumentative. Repetitive.
The sun was rising above the tallest peak on the resort now, fighting past the dense gray clouds that promised snow within the next day or so, so that there were sparkles on the powder covering the main trail that the lodge was stationed on.
Inside the lodge was warm, but lacked the homey touches that the rest of the resort had—no need to spend money on a gas fireplace in a room where no guests ever enter. There were lockers spanning across the left wall, and a row of radios hanging on the right. A couple of picnic benches that we had stolen from the summer camp counselors during my first year at Sterling took up the center of the room. There was a mini kitchen in the far-right corner, and through a door beside that was a bathroom and a couple of showers.
There was no one inside the building; I assumed that most people were already out, checking the trails. I went to my locker to get my skis, boots, and poles. I hadn’t skied since Jacob. I stared at the little blue lock, the numbers on the outside glinting silver. I hadn’t used the combination in so long that it took a couple of spins of the lock to jog my memory. The yank of the lock opening was harsh metallic in the quiet.
As I was clipping my boots on, I heard the stomp of someone else’s heavy ski boots announcing their arrival outside the lodge. I looked up to see Aden. He was a fellow patroller and had been at Sterling even longer than me. Before he was in the ski patrol, he was a ski and snowboard instructor. He lived for the mountains, spending every day off skiing out of bounds, on the freestyle ramp, or on the iciest and steepest trails, and spending his summers here as a hiking instructor. His face was tan year-long, and he had lines around his warm, brown eyes far beyond his years from the wind and sun exposure. The lines crinkled as he smiled at me.
“Lex! What’s up, man? I didn’t know you were coming in today!” He stomped across the room to give me a big, rough hug. The embrace was tight, and the cold from his jacket seeped through my base layers.
I stepped out of the hug and smiled back at him. I liked Aden. He was always friendly, and always happy to be at work. He was perfect at dealing with anybody in an accident. The screaming or crying never fazed him the way it seemed to faze me.
“Yeah, I just got in. Haven’t seen anyone else, though.”
“They’re all probably up there already,” he said. “Listen, Robin just called on the radio. She needs someone to check to see if the Fern Glades are good to open before the meeting. They’ve been too bare the last couple of weeks, but with all the powder, they might be good to go. Want to go with? We could clear it quicker with the both of us.”
I didn’t answer; I forced all my effort into shoving down the last buckle on my boot, which seemed to have rusted slightly in the locker. He heard the pause.
“Lex,” he said, quieter, but with a hint of smile still in his voice, “you gotta get back out there eventually.” My imaginary therapist agreed with him.
I sighed. He was right, of course. Or not. The kitchen really was not so bad, looking back; it was always warm, and I ate bowls of free mac-and-cheese for lunch every day.
But I thought of Jacob. Those eyes pleading blankly for help. And the little girl with a broken arm I helped down the mountain last season. And the mom who couldn’t find her son when ski school let out, and we found him riding the ski lift in circles alone because he was too scared to get off. And all of the Jacobs out there whom one day might need someone to be there sooner. I stood up and nodded.
“Yeah, let’s go.”
The ride up the lift seemed to take longer than I remembered. The Burnors had wanted Sterling to have a “vintage charm,” so they had kept the old and exposed two-person gondolas that slowly rattled up to various stopping points, the metal bars, with the green paint long chipped off, pressed the cold into your legs.
Halfway up the mountain, I was already shuddering. The wind was loud as it snuck into all of the spaces in my helmet. I felt like I had to reacclimate to the weather on the slopes, even though it had only been a few weeks.
Aden must have felt me shudder because he laughed and pushed my shoulder.
“Always. Trust me, the irony isn’t lost on me.” We spent the rest of the ride up in silence, me internally debating if that was in fact ironic.
When we got to the highest exit station on the lift, we lifted the bar, waved that the attendant, who nodded back at us through the station’s window, and pushed out of the seats and to the left side of the path, where I took a minute to readjust my poles and look out at the view. Even with the heavy clouds, it was always impressive to me, the miles of white mountains, the green of the trees that could survive the winter. “You ready?” Aden called, and I nodded. I turned and followed him down the trail that Fern Glades were off of. The main trail was wide and not very steep but had a rougher terrain than the typical bunny trail. Every other turn I heard the skating sound that revealed the ice hidden under the undisturbed. By the end of the day, whole patches of ice would be exposed. I grabbed one of the small orange caution flags out of the side of my backpack and stuck it in the closest spot of snow—a small warning to any skiers or boarders that made their way down this path.
It felt surprisingly good to be back out on the mountain. The quiet was only interrupted by my breathing and the soft, slicing sound of our skis. I forgot how much I loved the empty mornings, the new powder, the isolation. Breathing in the cold air was like breathing in fresh life.
Aden stopped on the right side of the trail about halfway down. One of the thin orange ropes was tied between two trees, blocking the entrance to the glades. A small circular sign on the rope read: CLOSED. THIN SNOW. Aden lifted the rope up high enough for us to crouch under.
“Let’s roll,” he said. I felt myself smiling under my neck warmer, which I always pulled up to over my nose when we were this high up the mountain.
In the glades, the off-roading of snow-skiing, the silence is even more pronounced. The trees become a guard against the wind and the sounds of other skiers on the main path. The change is so automatic that sliding under that orange rope sometimes feels like stepping into another world, a portal to something ancient and uncontainable. The glades seem to actively fight against you, as if you’re a trespasser on their sacred land. Roots grow, gnarled and angry, through the only main path, so that you’re forced to take a less worn route, where you can’t see the ridges of uneven rock footing that skates loudly and unnaturally against the smooth bottoms of the skis. Randomly, you’ll find yourself at the edge of a small cliff that seemed to erupt out of the earth right in front of you, so that the only way down is back through an expanse of ice you were just trying to avoid.
We spend a lot of time scoping the feasibility of the glades. When the snow hasn’t fallen past the many branches in its way, or when too many people tear through the same paths, the glades become dirty and impossible to ski over with any kind of ease. The variable conditions are what make it a safety issue, which makes it a patrol issue. It’s one of my favorite parts of the job: physically demanding at times, and always more fun than just skiing the normal paths.
Fern Glades, as Robin had predicted, had gotten fresh snowfall. The normally bare main paths, cut by so many skiers and snowboarders through the years, have a thin but solid layer of powder. I followed Aden’s parallel tracks in the snow and let my mind shut off. Skiing was as natural to me at this point as walking. At some points in my life, I felt like my feet were missing something if they weren’t laden down with boots and strapped into skis. There was nothing to worry about. This trail could be opened for visitors, and Jacob was far, far away, buried and warm in whatever Florida graveyard his parents had chosen for him. I heard from one of the police that he was from Florida. Where it never snows, and he never would have frozen to death.
Why anyone would leave Florida to go to this frozen, stony hellscape was beyond me. As a born-and-bred Northerner, who had never been more south than New York, I had long ago accepted my fate as a permanent resident of this climate and its harsh seasons. But during my weeks after Jacob, I had reveled in dreams of a far-south beach vacation when this ski season was over.
Aden and I reached a point in the glades where there were two clear paths, cut around a large exposed piece of mountain.
“You take the left?” he asked me with a wave of his pole.
I nodded and let out a deep breath of relief that I wasn’t sure Aden noticed through the layers. “See you back at the trail.”
As I watched Aden make a sharp cut to the right, I took a moment to look around, to listen to the fade of his skis, and to gaze after him, watching my tiny ghost follow. Jacob had taken the right path. We weren’t sure how he had gotten separated from his ski group and into the glades in the first place, but based on the trail his child-sized skis had made, he had teetered uneasily through the majority of the path, leaving small patches of the trail bare where he had fallen over and taken the snow with him. To the right was a large fallen tree that’s roots had been half ripped from the earth, waiting to trip him, to catch a left ski while the right pulled him forward, snapping his fragile tibia, sending him flying into a pile of snow that he wasn’t strong enough to pull his own broken body out of, and watching him freeze before someone could help.
I let the memory trail off and headed to the left. The trail was slightly steeper this way, but there was less foliage and obstacles throughout. I pulled more of the small orange flags out of the side pocket of my backpack and plunged them into snow near any roots, bare patches, or rocks large enough to trip anyone up. Once I was through most of the trail, I looked back at the small orange trail I had left like I was dropping breadcrumbs for lost children in a fantastical forest. I let out a small laugh, knowing how annoyed this would make the seasoned skiers, the ones that exclusively skied the glades for the adventure and thrill of potential danger. I was hoping for as little adventure as possible today.
I turned back around, ready to finish the rest of the trail, when I saw a small flash of blue near the thick tree line where the glades became too thick to explore. I blinked. It’s not what you think, I assured myself, moving slowly towards it while the invisible therapist in my head begged me to ignore it. And it wasn’t, of course, the eyeball of a six-year-old.
It was a bird, a blue jay, its neck twisted awkwardly, lying neatly atop the fresh snow. It must’ve flown into a tree at some point between the last snowfall and now. Recently, I reflected, considering it was still here and not eaten at all. As I stared down at the little bird, frozen and broken, I had a wild inclination to put it in my backpack, take it back to the base, and perform bird CPR. My internal therapist strongly argued against this.
Instead, I popped my skis off, dug my gloves in the snow, and made a small hole. I brushed the jay into my makeshift grave and covered it. I looked around for some kind of marker, a leaf or a pebble, but nothing seemed fitting. After a thought, I pulled the last of my caution flags out of my backpack and carefully stuck them above the grave.
I clumsily stepped back in my boots and surveyed my work. As far as any passers-by would know, the flag was covering another potential danger. It was the best I could do, and as I clipped my skis back on and finished my run through the glades, I felt a little lighter, as if I had left something behind with the bird. Maybe the relief of this death being so much more inconsequential, the relief of normal mountain life; or, maybe, it was a piece of the tiny ghost I had been carrying with me since I first saw those small, blue eyes staring at me through the snow.
When I met back up with Aden, I didn’t mention the bird, and he didn’t act like I had taken twice as long as I should have to clear the trail. We made it back to base easily.
“I’m freezing,” I said, half-accidentally, as we stepped back into the base lodge.
He laughed as he unclipped his helmet and let his shoulder-length hair shake out. “Typical Lex. Hey, Robin and everyone are meeting here in thirty. Go grab a coffee or something to warm up in the meantime.”
“Do you want to come with?” I asked. It was nice to have someone to fill the spaces in my head, besides a dead child, a dead bird, and an imaginary therapist.
“I’ll be there in five. I’m gonna check all the radios really quick.”
I shot him a quick thumbs up and headed to the coffee shop in the resort’s entrance. Other patrollers waved and greeted me as I passed, and with each step in the warm lodge, I felt myself easing back into routine. I ordered my coffee, tall and sweet, and sat at one of the tables to wait for Aden. Someone had left yesterday’s paper in the middle of the small table. I picked it up as I sipped, enjoying the warmth of the drink seeping through my frozen veins, but a small story on the first page made me choke, the coffee sitting and burning my tongue.
Sterling Faces Charges from Dead Child’s Parents, Cites Neglect. The story was unimportant, the words slipped past me. But the picture sent ice through my body all over again.
It was Jacob, apparently his most recent school photo. His dirty blonde hair was combed neatly, his polo was neat, his smile showed missing teeth, and his eyes, even in the poor print of a local newspaper, stared back at me.
They were green.