I fly. Here in the white air I am not Catherine George, invisible sister of Invincible Ivan, champion skier. I am not Dear Catie, accommodating daughter with yet another weekend alone. And, I am not Klutsy Kate, fifteen-year-old ditz who totally bombed her first real kiss. Up here in the air, I am Cat, Crazy Cat, daredevil dame of the mountain, red hot chillin’ explosion of white air.
My board lands on the snow and ice, and even then I am flying, land-flying, speeding down the slope, skidding to a halt, spraying a white fountain of powder on the three boarders waiting below.
Dougie! Dougie! as we call him, always with exclamations, always his name twice, gives me the snowboarder’s hug, somewhat celebration, mostly tackle, landing us both on the hard-packed snow.
“Awesome!” he yells too close to my ear. “That was so sick!”
“You’re a freakin’ idiot!” I yell back, socking him in the arm and pushing him off. A natural acrobat, he bounces his board back onto the snow, grinning. Evidently, not too disturbed by last night. I still blush just being around him. Dougie is your typical snow surfer dude with blonde hair, blue eyes, and a smile that will make a sucker of any girl. I should know.
One of Dougie’s friends, the girl, helps me to my feet. I just met her before the last run. Her hair is covered by a knitted hat, but with her goggles now on top of her head, I can see her eyes. Black Asian eyes.
Dougie puts one arm around her and the other around me. “You girls have a lot in common. Sophomores, queens of the snow.” He squeezes our heads together so they almost touch. “My fun girls.”
At that, the other girl untangles her head from his grip. Dougie keeps his arm around my shoulder for a few too many seconds, while I’m wondering what kind of fun he means. He releases me abruptly, then pushes off towards the lift.
“Last one’s a skier’s footstool,” Dougie calls. Whatever that means. He tries to come up with a new insult each run. He takes off for the J-bar lift, his friend Joe-Joe, skating after him.
The girl and I look at each other for a moment. I can feel her wondering the same things about me as I am about her. But she looks like someone who knows how to kiss.
She jerks her head towards the J-bar lift, and we shuffle up in line, pushing our snowboards with one foot. “That was a pretty good run,” she says.
“Pretty good? I owned the air.”
“Yeah. I can do better.”
Despite myself, I like this girl. “What’s your name again?”
“Michelle.” I won’t forget it this time. I put out my gloved hand. “You’re on.”
She smiles, like she shows everything and reveals nothing. She gives my glove a hard tap with hers, and she has instantly become my archrival and my best friend for the day.
Dougie and Joe-Joe are three spaces ahead in line. Their heads bounce around like their bodies can’t hold in all the excitement. They don’t look back. When conditions are this good, it’s all about snow.
I take the lift first, Michelle follows.
The lift gives me too much time to think. It slows everything down. I’m impatient to get to the run where you don’t think, you just do—you speed, you flip, you glide through the air. I want to live through the jumps, but my mind goes to that kiss. I feel that jolt of anxiety again. How my mouth clamped shut, my tongue felt dry. His lips mashing against mine. I bet Michelle’s lips don’t clamp shut.
At the top of the hill, I look down to see the boys going over the first jump. Dougie! Dougie! does a straight jump rising in the air, seeing how far he can go. I can’t even see him when he lands. Joe-Joe does a cool 360, but lands off balance, and finally bails into the side snowbank.
Michelle skates up next to me, the mid-morning sun glinting in her eyes, and motions for me to go down first. The snowboarders’ run is still fresh, well groomed with different size jumps and landings.
I push off, bend down to gather speed, head straight for the jump. There is that moment, when your board is gathering speed, when you can almost feel the jump as you approach. Then you hit the jump, bend your knees and spring. Flying, I twist my legs sideways, grab the back of the board, my other hand raised in the air, and phwoof, I land in a perfect glide. The boys are gone, Dougie doesn’t even glance back. But when I look to the top of the hill, Michelle is pumping her fists in the air.
Her turn. I glide to the side so I can see her whole run. She gathers so much speed, its crazy-scary and when she lifts, I can hear her slice the air. She does my same trick, twist, grab, other hand punching the air, but she adds a 180, landing backwards, and another 180 on the snow. She glides up to me all teeth and sparkle. I can see how this is going.
“You go first this time,” I say.
She laughs and races me to the lift. We take turns, all morning, each run trying to outdo each other, each jump pressing our limits a little more.
I am a star. I am awesome. I am the Unidentified Flying Athlete, a rocket, a streak of light. I do 180s and wheelies, I go fakie, sliding backwards, then turn around to gain speed for the jump. I go over the jump with flips and twists. I make the board do scissors and crazy-eights. I even do a cartwheel, though that isn’t intentional and I end up with a bruised eye.
But Michelle. She is awesome too. She’s smaller than me, she’s like this bundle of speed, her spins are like high velocity turbines. When she flips she’s a compact ball wound tight like yarn. She crouches so low her butt almost touches the board, her front leg straight out. In the air she grabs the board in the front, in the back, or crosses over for twists and turns. She is pure art, that Michelle. I wonder if she’ll crash.
Her last run she does a cartwheel through the air. But she lands on her feet. She finishes by swooping around me. “Hey, Dude. How’s the eye?”
“Dude, you just worry about how I’m going to smoke you on the next run.”
She takes off her goggles and hat, to let off some of the heat. Her long black hair gleams in all the whiteness that surrounds her. She smiles, her eyes mischievous. Beautiful. I am not beautiful. I’m not bad, but I’m not glowingly, stunningly, off the charts beautiful like Michelle. Skiers usually glower at snowboarders as they pass by, but they smile at Michelle. One skier even crashes, tripping over his own skis. No skier ever tripped because of me.
Dougie! Dougie! slides up, with Joe-Joe close behind. I’d forgotten about the boys. Dougie puts his arm around Michelle’s shoulder. “Isn’t she the awesomest?”
Yeah, the awesomest. He used to say that about me. Dougie doesn’t seem so much like two exclamation points anymore.
Michelle must have seen the look in my eyes. “Hey, Crazy Cat.” She already knows how to soften my edge. “How about a race?”
“Yeah, let’s go!” Dougie shouts.
“I wasn’t talking to you.” Michelle is looking straight at me.
“Harsh.” Dougie pretends to look dejected, then pats his buddy on the shoulder. “Okay. Winner gets the afternoon with me. Runner-up gets my pal Joe-Joe here.” Joe-Joe’s smiling at me. He’s got a big forehead and unfocused eyes like he’s done a few too many drugs or banged his head against the wall a few too many times. I can’t remember if I’ve ever heard him speak.
Dougie puts his arm around his buddy. “I don’t mind sharing my little adventures.” My. Little. Adventures.
He puts his arm around me and squeezes my shoulder a little too roughly. “We’ll see you girls at the lodge at oh-one-hundred hours.” He means thirteen hundred hours but no one corrects him. Dougie puts out his fist. Joe-Joe puts his fist on top. They wait for Michelle and me to seal the pact.
Michelle unbinds her back boot and skates away towards the chairlift. I feel the boys’ fists waiting there, but my eyes are pulled to Michelle’s retreating jacket. Aqua blue with white zig-zag stripes that seem to always move. I push off after her.
“We know we’ll see you, Cate,” Dougie calls. I look back at him. He adds, with extra enthusiasm, “Little Catie!”
I catch up to Michelle. She smiles when she sees me.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
“All the way to the top.”
“Skiers in the way.”
“The mountain’s emptying out for lunch.” I look around. She’s right. The lines are thinning, the slopes less crowded. “We’ll be careful.” She laughs. Careful. Right.
We slide up quickly to the front of the line. The chair lift swoops around and scoops us up, and we’re on our way. The ride to the top is long. I suddenly feel shy, but Michelle talks enough for both of us. I don’t hear everything she says.
At the top, we’ll face the Black Diamond expert slope. I’m not as used to racing as doing tricks. But it will only be a short run before it turns into a blue intermediate slope. I am not going to win this race. Michelle is faster. Dougie is counting on that. Joe-Joe is creepy weird. After the run, I’ll just skate to the lodge and call Nana to come get me.
“My is such a possessive word, don’t you think?” I hear Michelle say.
I come back to the chair lift. We are nearing the top. “Huh?”
“Like Dougie owns you. Us, I mean.”
“I don’t know. I’ve never been anybody’s anything.”
“You want that?” she asks. I look down at my gloves, moving my fingers inside to keep them warm. She laughs.
My. Little. Adventure.
We put on our hats and goggles, and Michelle opens the bar. “Want to jump?” she asks.
It’s a good fifteen-foot drop. “We’ll get kicked off the mountain.”
“Yeah.” She has that glint again. I am tempted. But there are patches of grass right under the lift, and ice on either side of it. We are too close to the landing anyway. “Next time,” she says.
We glide off the chair lift at the landing and push up our goggles to look down the mountain.
“Shhhh—oot,” I say. If it were powder, it would be no problem. But the black diamond slope is pure ice. And the noon sun is blinding in its reflection. No one is on the slope. Moments like these end up as newspaper headlines. Ivan George’s Fifteen-year-old Sister Kills Self While Stupidly Trying to Race Hot-Shot Girl Down Slope of Death in Stupid Race She Was Never Ever Going to Win in First Place.
I can’t concentrate on the hill. I can only think how I’m fifteen and I’ve never really kissed a boy, except for that lip mashing with Dougie that felt more like a bruise than a kiss.
I don’t feel like Crazy Cat anymore.
Michelle looks hesitant, too. Not a good sign.
We stand there for a while, just looking. It’s not a long hill. If we can just get down to the next level, then it would be easy from there.
“There’s no way to go but down,” she finally says, and puts her goggles over her eyes.
I watch her cut a long track sideways across the ice, too fast. Somehow she manages to stop at the edge. I don’t think I have a choice, so I follow. The whole run is too fast and out of control. The board doesn’t turn easily, so it gathers speed, cutting more down than across. I’m going to bail, I’m going to crash, it’s going to happen at some point, there is no grip underneath me, there’s a tree, and somehow my fear finds a way to turn. The board is pulling underneath me. If I crouch to get more control I will speed up, if I straighten the board will slip and I’ll tumble-slide down the hill. I’m going crazy-fast, crazy-fast, how did I get myself into this, God, I’ll be good, I’ll be good, I’ll hug my mother, I’ll call my father, I didn’t mean to yell, ahhhh, a tree a tree, move board, move, thank you God, I’ll be good, I promise, thank you God.
We zoom into the intermediate section, no time to gain control. We’re going to get kicked off the mountain for sure, speeding too fast with other skiers around now, not many, but a few. Less icy, but crazy moguls all over the place. One bump leading to the other, bending my knees to soften the blows, I can’t make wide turns because I would crash on the next mogul or the next skier. Barely in control, fast and furious turns around the moguls straight in front. I am going too fast the speed still speeding up, until somehow I make it to the bottom of the intermediate slope. I stop with a huge heart-pounding plume of snow beside Michelle who is waiting for me.
“Awesome! That was so sick!”
“You are one freakin’ crazy chick,” I say.
Michelle puts her goggles on and tears down the hill, a bunny slope after that Mountain of Death. The race is on. I take off after her. This slope is perfect. Lower on the mountain it is mostly powder, with just enough icy patches to give your heart a little jolt every once in a while. You can gather speed without completely losing control. I am three seconds behind her, no way to catch up. She bends all the way down, aiming the board straight down the hill. Man, that girl can pick up speed faster than anyone I know. I concentrate on the back of her head, on her jacket flapping in the wind. The tinted yellow of my goggles gives the mountain a muted old-picture look, distant and unreal. It makes me feel safe.
Michelle turns backwards into a fakie, her bug eye goggles looking at me, standing straighter to intentionally slow down. She points behind me. I do a fakie, too, and there up the slope, I see Dougie’s yellow jacket and Joe-Joe’s luminescent green one, flapping with the speed of their chase.
I turn around. Michelle has already taken off. I crouch down to speed up. I love that laughing thrill. Run, run, run. Escape. Survive. Don’t get caught. Run, run, run, run.
I crouch down, but I can’t make myself as small and fast as Michelle. I don’t look back, but I can feel Dougie and Joe-Joe descending upon me. Then it hits me. I don’t want to get caught. I don’t want to feel Dougie’s hands grab me. I crouch down farther, press my head into the wind. I am not anybody’s anything. I am not little. I am my own freakin’ adventure. Cat. Crazy Cat. Red hot chillin’ explosion of white air.
I see Michelle’s aqua blue jacket. Somehow I am catching up to her.
She turns her board into the woods. My board follows her without waiting for my brain to think. There is a bumpy tire grid along the edge of the woods. Churned up snow, just to keep people like us from veering off the groomed slope. I follow her, my board vibrating under me. I manage to right myself as I enter the woods, but I never quite regain my balance as I steer between the trees. Wouldn’t it be stupid to survive the Mountain of Death and to escape the snow-boys only to die here in the woods of a bunny slope? A quiet whoa, whoa whispering through my breath, I head straight for the biggest tree. I kick up my board, raise my hands so I don’t break a wrist, crash onto my back, and I sink into the powdery snow.
I am covered in snow for ages, but through the sea of white, I can hear Michelle’s laughter. “Are you all right?”
I push myself up on my elbows, and she grabs my arm to help me sit up.
I shake my head at her, but I laugh too. That is the difference between being alive and not. You can laugh. “You are one crazy chick,” I say again.
“It’s all about living in the moment.” She’s kneeling beside me in the snow. She has taken off her bindings. She looks towards the slope, where we can see the skiers through the trees. “We lost them.”
“Yeah.” I shake the snow off and squeeze my arms and legs. Nothing hurt, nothing broken. Not this time. “You’re either going to kill me or cause me a lot of damage.”
“Yeah.” She takes off her gloves and touches the bruise on my eye. Her hand moves down to my cheek. “You got a little scratch here.”
She runs her fingers from the scratch down to my mouth. She runs them across my lips. Every part of my skin tingles, and my mouth opens slightly. “Do you want to see how much damage I can do?”
I don’t answer, just look into her black eyes. She leans over and barely brushes my lips with hers. It is the softest, sweetest kiss, barely there and yet so much more than anything I could have imagined. Her kiss is so light it goes through my skin into my blood, entering my body like that sweet excitement that is Michelle. She smells like fresh snow and ice, she tastes like cold air that has been warmed, her touch, her lips, are like the lightness of soaring through the air. My body is trembling under her kiss.
She pulls away slowly, her fingertips lingering on my cheek. I have nothing to say. She stands up, holding out her hand. “Come on.” That smile. “We’re not done yet.” She tilts her head towards me with that gesture, Are you coming?
I take her hand and she pulls me up.
“Let’s do it again.”
I wonder which part she means.
Once out of the woods, Michelle stops short. Dougie and Joe-Joe are standing there, Dougie’s eyes a steely blue, Joe-Joe’s mouth hanging open.
“She just kissed you!” Dougie is looking at me, his face twisted in disgust, an anger in his eyes that makes me catch my breath.
Then my heart stops pounding. I pull Michelle towards me and kiss her. On the slope. For everyone to see. A passing skier trips over his skis.
Joe-Joe bobs his head up and down. “Cool.”
“That’s sick!” Dougie shouts. He looks around the mountain, like he’s being seen.
“Yeah!” I shout to the world, raising my arms in the air. “That’s so sick!”
I push Michelle forward and follow her down the slope. I turn into a fakie, looking backward. Dougie and Joe-Joe are stock still, then Joe-Joe pumps his fist into the air. I turn my board back around. Cat. I am Crazy Cat.
Gathering speed, I catch up to Michelle. We fly. No longer racing each other, but racing together, crisscrossing, carving our paths, speeding headlong down the hill to whatever lies at the bottom.
First Place Winner of the 2009 Katherine Paterson Prize, judged by Katherine Paterson