Burt propped his feet up on the ottoman. The mammoth hearth dominating the lodge’s main wall warmed the soles of his slippers. Flipping open the newspaper, he started with the far left column and began working his way down and across.
The neighboring chair hushed. With a grunt, another foot thumped onto the plush footstool.
Burt shifted his feet aside with a weighty sigh.
“Sorry,” said his new neighbor. Pain laced his voice as the man settled.
Burt cocked down the edge of his paper enough to take in the wavy curls, verdant fleece and cast covering the other man’s right leg along with the crutches now laying on the floor.
“No,” said the younger man. “I did it on the Diamond Cutter.”
Burt gave a derisive snort. “Dangerous.”
“Who do you think you are? Some kind of skiing savant?”
A tittering round of giggles rippled across the lodge. Burt scowled as a clutch of young women decked in gear more suitable for a catalog than the slopes, flowed over like a rolling avalanche of yarn and Polar-tec.
“Excuse me,” said one.
She elbowed her friend who balled up her courage as tightly as her sweater. “You’re Wes Decon right?”
“Yes,” said Burt’s neighbor.
“Could we,” said another girl.
They dissolved into girlish laughter as if directed by an unseen signal.
“Sure,” said Wes. Despite the broken leg he beamed a grin, encouraging more tittering, and accepted the notebook one of the girl’s offered along with a pen from another.
“Thanks,” said the cluster. “You’re the best.”
They flitted off like a flock of stirred canaries and perched by a nearby table of young men who were scowling out the windows at the fog-laced mountain and hunching their shoulders.
“The best? Apparently not,” said Wes, sagging back into the overstuffed arm chair.
Burt cocked a bushy brow. “One broken leg going to stop you?”
Wes sighed and sank deeper into the cushions. “This isn’t the first.”
“Gonna be the last?”
A waiter arrived, carrying a tray with a towering mug steaming like a smoke stack.
“Thanks,” said Wes, fishing out a plump wallet.
“Sven says it’s on the house,” said the waiter, placing the drink on the chair’s side table.
“For you then.” Wes palmed a bill and held out his hand.
The waiter, dumbstruck, shook hands and stammered, “Thank you, sir.” He straightened and tactfully avoided looking into his now clutched fist. “Can I get you anything Mr. Leopold?”
Burt waved a dismissive hand. The waiter scurried off, but Burt cringed as Wes’s gaze locked upon him.
“Leopold? Not, Burt Leopold?”
“What if I am?”
“Woah. I mean, talk about a legend.”
Burt stared through the gray pages propped before him.
“I mean, Gold in the 50’s and 60’s,” said Wes. “World Champion more times than I can remember and you held the fastest time on the Alpine Route until—”
“Until I stopped.”
“You stopped in your prime.”
“I stopped when I needed to.”
“But why? I didn’t hear about you getting hurt or anything.”
Lowering the paper to his lap, Burt gazed into the snapping embers. “Not me.”
Shooting his glare to Wes caused the younger man to finally clamp his mouth shut.
Then, Wes’ eyes widened. “Oh right, your wife.”
Burt pursed his lips together and dropped his gaze to the crumpled pages. The fire crackled in the moment of silence.
Wes drew his cup over with a rub of porcelain against wood and held the mug in both hands.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t think before I speak.”
“Or look before you ski,” said Burt, the tension melting off his shoulders.
Wes chuckled. “No I saw the drop the whole way, right until it smacked me in the face.” He shook his head and his humor dwindled into a long exhale.
“Why do you sound so resigned?”
“Well, after this.” He swept the mug to indicate the cast. “I’m not sure what I’m going to do.”
“Seems like you’ve still got enough attention.”
Wes glanced at the young cluster chatting over drinks. “They’ll forget about me when they recognize the next face.”
Burt pointed a gnarled finger at the wallet resting on Wes’ flat stomach. “You got enough in there to buy this damn place if you wanted.”
“Me? A lodge owner?”
“I don’t think I could sit in here all day dealing with the customers when there are slopes right out my front door.”
“You get used to it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Who do you think owns this place?” Burt withdrew his own wallet. Fetching one of the lodge’s business cards, he dangled the hard rectangle in the gap between them.
Wes squinted at the text. “Hey, that’s you.”
“Precisely.” Burt tucked the card away.
“But don’t you miss it?”
Burt rubbed his thumbs against his wallet, the leather worn from countless other nervous streaks of his flesh against the surface. “Not at all.”
“Isn’t that how…Your wife?”
“She caught pneumonia,” said Burt, his voice low, “probably while watching from the crowd during one of my races. Wilted like a flower.”
“And you haven’t skied since?”
“What’s the point? She’s not there at the bottom of the hill.”
“How do you know?”
Burt glared across the intervening space.
Wes cupped the mug close like a shield. “I just mean, she could be watching from, you know, Heaven or something. Would you rather have her watching you talk to a broken kid like me or see you out there?” He thumbed at the expanse of glass and the dusted evergreens threaded with white streaks, open and flowing like waterfalls.
Burt stared at the view while a familiar surge of adrenaline threaded his veins. Breaking the hypnotic trance of watching bodies swoosh and cut into the powder, he stuffed his wallet away.
“Maybe.” Burt opened up the newspaper again and set his sights on an unread article.
“Well when you do go back out there,” said Wes, “watch out for the Cutter.”
“The Cutter? Ha. I used to do that one in my sleep.”
Wes grinned. “I’d like to see that.”
“Yeah,” said Burt, the columns blurring. “So did she.”