A dream at Olympic gold in ski jumping. It’s a dream that’s been the exclusive property of male Olympic athletes.
For seventeen-year-old Ellie Engebretsen, the 2011 decision to include women’s ski jumping in the Olympics is a game changer. She’d love to bring home the gold for her father, a former Olympic hopeful whose dreams were blown along with his knees on an ill-timed landing. But can she defy the pull of gravity that draws her to Kate Moreau, her biggest competition and the girl of her dreams?
How can Ellie soar through the air when all she feels like doing is falling hard?
This is not a story about a girl who found the courage to come out as gay. Wrong girl. Wrong book. Sorry. (Not really.) This is a story about a ski jumper—me. And an auburn-haired girl—Kate. And the biggest
jump of all. Ask any ski jumper and they’ll tell you a truth that never airs on ESPN. None of us jumps for the judges. Or the scores. Or to nail some fucking form. We jump for those four, five, six seconds of airtime. Against the rush of the wind, despite
the hard ground beneath us, we jump. And in the jumping, we fly free. So no, this isn’t a story about a girl who found the courage to come out as gay. Wrong girl. Wrong book. Sorry. (Not really). This is a story about a girl who found the courage to jump, to fly, and—for a brief, precious
time—to be free. But here’s the thing. All flights come to an end. Ask any ski jumper and they’ll tell you that’s another truth that never airs on ESPN. For better. For worse. Gravity always wins.
It’s all about resistance. Until it’s not.
I need to throw myself off a mountain. I need to push myself until the only pain I have is in my body. That pain, I know. That pain, I can handle. Unfortunately, all I’ve got is Freefall, a steep vertical wall covered in ice and snow on the sheer north face of Moose Mountain at Lutsen resort. It’s a Minnesota mountain. In other words, a glorified hill, but it will have to do.
I stab the snow with my poles and laugh aloud, an angry burst of breath crystallizing in the night air.
The price of falling is never free.
A girl in a pale blue jacket and rented skis zooms past me without pausing long enough to take in the view or assess the danger. Happens every year during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Some dumb tourist gets lost or cocky and tackles a black diamond run. It never ends well, but it does keep the ski patrol employed.
I aim my left ski straight down and, in one fluid motion, push against my poles and kick off with my right ski. The black-green blur of the evergreen trees to my right and left pick up speed as I do. Stark against the snow and strong, they refuse to shed so much as one needle in the cold- ass Minnesota winter.
The text. The text. The goddamn text. Never meant for my eyes. Impossible to forget. Be an evergreen, I blink and tell myself. Shed nothing. But I’m not an evergreen and the stinging hotness edges down my cheek where it freezes, an
icy pimple of pain, and eventually falls onto the snow beneath me. I’m used to leaving a bit of myself on the slopes, but not like this.
Crying over a broken heart is for the girls who count calories, not push-ups. Girls who drink lattes, not whiskey shots. Girls who spend their Sundays in the mall, not throwing themselves down ice-covered mountains. I plant my pole and kick against the beaten-down bed of snow, promising myself that the frozen tear, now forever a part of Freefall, is the last I will shed for Blair.
Ahead of me I spot the girl in the blue jacket. She’s crouched low, head tucked, like she’s in some goddamn hurry to have her death wish come true. Fucking idiot. Freefall isn’t for skiers who want a vacation break from their lives. Freefall is for people who need to face death to feel alive.
The girl in the blue jacket is coming up on Freefall’s rough patch where rocks jut out without warning. To make it worse I’m not seeing the sparkle of diamonds in the snow that indicates fresh powder. I’m seeing a flat whitish-blue patch that means only one thing. Ice.
“Oh, shit,” I say, my boots biting into my calves as I try to slow down. This girl doesn’t know she’s about five seconds away from having a search and rescue party thrown in her honor as she hits the ice patch at full speed. I cringe, but then she’s cutting through it with sharp left and right turns, leaning forward (forward!) until she clears it and reaches the bottom. She doesn’t stop there to catch her breath or count her blessings or scratch off one of her nine lives. Most skiers have nothing left when they hit the bottom of Freefall and have to ice skate Valley Run, the trail that leads to the front of Moose Mountain, but not this girl. She harnesses her momentum and lets it propel her over Valley Run until she disappears from sight.
Well, shit. No way am I letting a girl like that ski my mountain without at least knowing her name. I bury my poles in my armpits and crouch low for maximum speed. The broken crusts of ice, compliments of mystery girl, are annoying but nothing I can’t handle, and when I hit the bottom of Freefall, I, too, fly onto Valley Run, my eyes searching for a bit of pale blue until I spot her already standing in line for the lift that leads to Eagle Ridge. Impossible. She must have taken Valley Run at record speed, which means I have to as well if I’m going to ride with her up the lift that leads to the top of Eagle Mountain. I’m puffing when I ski up to the two skiers between the girl in the blue jacket and me, but a tap on the shoulder and a toss of my head sends them scurrying behind me. I don’t often play the Eleanor Engebretsen card, but this is a special occasion, and I claim my place next to the mystery girl who isn’t even breathing hard, though her cheeks are a sexy shade of red.
The ski lift carries the two people in front of us up, up, and away and we ski-shuffle onto the lift pad. She chooses the left and I go to the right. The chair hits the back of my knees and then I am sitting next to this girl, arms and hips and shoulders touching, and she’s futzing with her goggles while I’m being swept away.
I should talk to her. I want to talk to her. I have a million questions to ask her, but my brain won’t work. It’s too busy trying to figure out how to steal sideways glances at her without getting busted. The first glance confirms what I suspected. No pro would be caught dead in rented skis and some off-brand jacket probably bought at Walmart. The second glance reveals a mess of auburn curls trying to escape a hand-knitted hat. The third glance gets me busted, but not until after I’ve checked out her long eyelashes dusted with snow, her full nibble-worthy lips, her slight overbite that makes her perfectly imperfect.
I was wrong. So wrong. This girl has all the right equipment. “Hello, I’m up here.” She looks at me until I pull my gaze off her body. A puff of smoke
from her breath hits the freezing air and obscures her face for one second. Long enough for me to realize I like looking at her face. “I’m Kate Moreau.”
“Ellie.” I should say more, explain why I’ve been checking her out, but my brain has quit working.
“It’s my first time at Lutsen. How about you?” Kate tries to rescue me from the awkward moment, but I hate small talk. Though I’m willing to listen to Kate’s voice for hours, as long as I don’t have to respond.
I stare through the V of my skis at the ski run and the tiny zooming skiers beneath us. I stare ahead at the gray-blue expanse of Lake Superior that begins at the foot of Lutsen and spreads across all of Minnesota’s North Shore, ending who knows where. I stare at my knee, my boot, the clump of snow stuck to my ski—anything but the girl sitting next to me—and try to think of something clever to say.
“I asked if this is your first time at Lutsen, too.” Kate looks at me, waiting for an answer I obviously should give her, but once again I’m rescued because the chairlift bounces to a stop and the bar lifts up. Kate quick steps it to the left while I stand there like an idiot and get my ass smacked before I realize I need to make a move.
“Uh, K-Kate?” My tongue, my fucking tongue. Such a traitor. “Yeah?” She turns to look at me. “It’s my first time skiing Lutsen, too.” I have no idea why I’m lying. No, that’s another lie. I know perfectly well why I’m lying to Kate. Because I wish it was my first time. I’d give anything to start over.
“Cool. I’m heading to Mogen. Want to join me?” Kate asks and I notice her eyes for the first time. Gray streaked with slivers of pale blue. Little crinkles of skin around the corners. It makes me want to hear her laugh.
“Yeah, sure. Love to,” I lie for the second time.
Mogen is Lutsen’s terrain park. It’s infested with snowboarders and peppered with deformed hills that insult real ski jumps. It’s also Blair’s favorite run and I can’t think of Mogen without thinking of Blair. And I can’t think of Blair. Not yet.
I am about to suggest another run, any other run, but Kate is a moving blur and, like on Freefall, she doesn’t stop when she hits the top of Mogen. Someone really should tell her she’s missing the best views, but that someone isn’t going to be me.
I kick off and follow Kate. The run splits and she heads to the right toward a quarter-pipe jump. She slices through a swarm of snowboarders in a way that makes me proud to know her, even if it has only been for three whole minutes. I watch Kate approach the jump. I watch for the telltale signs that signals an amateur: A split second of hesitation. Surrendering to the reflex to pull back. Veering off at the last minute. But Kate does none of those as she takes the jump and somersaults through the air like she exists beyond the rules of gravity, and when she sticks a perfect landing, I forget how to breathe.
“That’s what I’m talking about!” Kate fist pumps the air and whoops for joy, and then it’s my turn to take her breath away. I shift my weight and aim straight for the quarter-pipe jump. My repertoire plays through my mind. A flatspin, an alley-oop, a twister? As usual, my body makes the decision for me. A Lincoln Loop it is. I bury my poles in my armpits and crouch low. The quarter-pipe rushes me and I feel it, the moment when my muscles take over. Wind slaps me across the face. My stomach presses against my spine. The sky tilts and then—
Images flood my mind. A soft body, the ins and outs of which I know better than my own. Laughing eyes. Lying eyes. Long dark brown hair that bleeds blond. Ombré, she calls it. I should have known better than
to fall for a girl who couldn’t even be faithful to one hair color. Blair. Blair. Goddamn Blair. Never meant for my heart. Impossible to forget. My muscles contract. All of me contracts. The earth tilts on its axis. Fast and out of control, a wash of white. It’s a different kind of fall, but like the others, it isn’t free.
When the sparkling white starts to spin away, I spot Kate’s face hovering above me and I pray to die right there at the foot of the quarter-pipe jump on Mogen.
“Oh my God, are you okay?” Kate asks.
I lie in the me-shaped indentation of snow, wriggling toes and bending wrists and trying to suck in air through lungs that have betrayed me as well. “Yeah, I think so.”
Kate grabs my hand. “Let me help you up.” She pulls me into a one-legged perch. I look for my other ski and spot it a few feet away, skewering a mogul. A sharp pain hits like a punch to the gut. I double over and grab my side. First Blair and now this—boffing a jump that on any other day would have been my bitch. The world wobbles again.
“Hey.” Kate reaches out an arm and I grasp it like a kid in SkiWee holding onto the T-bar for dear life. “You sure you’re okay?”
The pain begins to subside until I can straighten and look into her eyes. “Yeah, I’m fine. Sorry.”
Her eyes crinkle at the corners. “For what? Falling? It happens.” Kate yanks her hat off and a mop of wavy auburn hair tumbles around her face.
“Thanks for picking me up.” Jesus! Did I say that? “From the ground, I mean. From the ground. You know, where you found me and…picked me up.”
Kate laughs and I realize maybe Jack was right. She usually is when it comes to girls. Jack is my butch best friend whose real name is Lisa Marie, but she’ll kick you in the balls if you call her that. Doesn’t matter whether you have balls or not. She earned the nickname Jack when she came out, all at once and without giving a shit. Like that kid’s toy, the one with the clown that couldn’t take the pressure anymore and had to pop out of the damned box. That’s Jack. Happy to be out, but always looking for the next box to pop into. Which, according to Jack, is precisely what I need to do to get over Blair.
Step one: Get a little tourist pussy. The sooner, the better.
Jack’s words, not mine, and even though Jack can be crude, she’s also brilliant as hell. She’s got it all planned out—how I can get over my cheating girlfriend. She even named her master plan The Blair Bitch Project, but so far I’ve yet to find a tourist willing to sign up for some meaningless, heartbreak-erasing revenge sex. Still, Jack’s plan is devious in a way that makes me sad she and I have zero chemistry, because I sure as hell love how her mind works.
I steal another glance at Kate. There’s a sexy little glint in her eyes and a half smile on her face that could be interpreted as flirty. As Jack would say, no time like the present to get down with The Blair Bitch Project.
“How about I buy you a cocoa as a thank you?” Heat surges on my face until I’m certain I look like a friggin’ stop sign. Round and red and telling Kate to stop, to not cross this lane.
Talk about a contradiction.
“I don’t think so,” Kate says and my stomach tightens. “But you could buy me a burger and fries to go with that cocoa.”
“You got it.”
Kate looks down the hill at my ski sticking out of the mogul. “Be right back.” She skis over and yanks out my ski, then side steps her way back up Mogen. She drops the ski in front of me and I step into the binding. “You’re lucky. You could have really hurt yourself.”
It’s subtle, but it’s there. Kate’s assumption that I couldn’t handle the quarter-pipe jump, and it stings. So much I almost tell her I followed her down Freefall. That it was easy! That I’m Eleanor Engebretsen, the Eleanor Engebretsen, for crying out loud, and that I’m only off balance because my ex-girlfriend sent the wrong lover a text. But instinct tells me to shut the fuck up, so I do.
Kate surveys the slope and shakes her head. “We’re going to take it slow and skip the rest of the jumps. If you get in trouble, for God’s sake, sit your ass down and yell for help. Got it?”
“Yeah.” My ego takes a hit, but my libido surges. “I got it.” “Okay, then. Follow me.” And she’s off. One quick dart toward the moguls would clarify things once and for all, and yeah, it’s tempting. But then Kate looks back at me, and it strikes me that following this girl might lead me exactly where I want to go.
As promised, Kate takes it slow, hugging the curves of the hill in a way that makes me see more than just her body. I see her form, the way she uses the slope and the pull of the hill to her advantage. The way she reacts without thought or fear. Three minutes down the hill, I’m pretty sure Kate’s talent is more born than trained. Five minutes down, I’m certain it doesn’t matter.
“We made it!” Kate says when we reach Rosie’s Chalet. She’s too polite to say what she really means—that I made it, miracle of miracles. She slides her rented skis into the rack and smiles at me.
“Thanks to you.” I lay it on thick as I slide my Rossignols next to Kate’s skis. “C’mon. You’ve earned that burger and fries.”
“Don’t forget the cocoa.” Kate grins as she takes off her gloves and shoves them in her pockets.
“Absolutely not,” I promise her.
We walk toward Rosie’s, where cocoa is going to be served, hopefully with a heavy sprinkling of sweet talk. Kate holds the door for me and I walk forward, my attention momentarily drawn to her long fingers circled with silver rings and her neatly trimmed nails.
It’s impossible to stop my imagination from fast-forwarding as we step into the women’s locker room to ditch our jackets and clunky ski boots. I sit on a bench and bend over to unclamp my buckles. It’s the perfect vantage point to steal more glances at Kate as she unzips her jacket, but she catches me and smiles a Mona Lisa smile. Indecipherable. Infuriating. My stocking feet hit the floor and soak up the snow that has dripped in clumps from my boots and turned to puddles. I shiver.
“What’s wrong?” Kate asks me. “Nothing.” I tell her. “Just cold feet. I’ll warm up soon enough.” She laughs like she’s reading between all my stupid lines. I put on my tennis shoes and lead
Kate upstairs to Rosie’s. Of course, getting her on my turf is only the first part of my plan. The next part depends on whether or not Jack is working the front desk at Eagle Ridge Lodge. She’d better be. Otherwise The Blair Bitch Project is dead in the water before I can give Kate a reason to take off all those rings.
Minnesota writer Juliann Rich spent her childhood in search of the perfect climbing tree. The taller, the better! A branch thirty feet off the ground and surrounded by leaves, caterpillars, birds, and squirrels was a good perch for a young girl to find herself. Seeking truth in nature and finding a unique point of view remain crucial elements in her life as well as her writing.
Juliann is the author of four young adult novels: CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE, SEARCHING FOR GRACE, TAKING THE STAND, and GRAVITY (forthcoming in November, 2016). She writes character-driven books about young adults who are bound to discover their true selves and the courage to create an authentic life…if the journey doesn’t break them.
Juliann is the 2014 recipient of the Emerging Writer Award from The Saints and Sinners Literary Festival and lives with her husband and an adorable but naughty dachshund named Bella in a 1920’s brownstone she is lovingly restoring to its original beauty.
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