When the bone broke, I actually heard it. Fucking agony as the pieces split apart like an atom bomb detonating in my leg. Then my snowboard hit the icy bottom rail, and when my full weight smashed down on the fracture, I learned what real hell was.
I don’t remember a lot after that. I don’t think I cried. God I hope not. But I can’t be sure because the pain was so intense I kind of zoned out. Just a blur of medics, digital flashes, and my buddy, Andy, looking pale and nauseated while he reassured me it would be okay. But he was a terrible liar. I could see the horror in his face as he stared at the bone poking through my flesh. Every deep line and twitch of his expression told me I was fucked.
Twelve months and four surgeries later, the same cereal and soda companies that had begged me to be their spokesperson skulked away as if I stank. Maybe it was the smell of wasted money and busted dreams. I guess I wasn’t a good enough role model anymore. Who wants a potential cripple hawking what amounted to candy for breakfast? I mean, a company has to have standards. But when my sponsors abandoned me, I’m not going to lie; I sank into a deep depression. I was an asshole to anyone stupid enough to come near me. And if they were one of those cheery types who told me tomorrow would be a brighter day? They needed to have quick reflexes because I usually threw shit at those people.
I was twenty years old and washed-up.
Grabbing my bags off the luggage carousel, I winced against the harsh florescent lights of the airport baggage-claim area. A slap on my back almost sent me flying and returned me to the present.
“Holy shit, dude. You don’t look half bad, considering,” I heard a familiar voice say behind me.
Oh, that’s right… Now I’m twenty-two and washed-up. How time flies
Rubbing my throbbing shoulder, I stared into the ruddy face of Reed Brown, old acquaintance and fellow professional snowboarder. He had a huge, dumb-ass grin plastered on, and I wasn’t surprised at all when his curious gaze dropped to my leg. Everybody’s gaze always dropped to my leg.
He eyed my appendage like it was a rickety bridge about to collapse under me any minute. “Everything operational?”
“I hope you’re talking about my leg.” I made it a point to keep things light the minute pity seeped into people’s eyes. It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea for me to have a rim-shot sound prerecorded on my phone for moments like these. You know, to keep things fun.
“Dude, you slay me.”
“How ya been?” I struggled to be heard over the perky female voice vibrating from the overhead speakers, lecturing us all on the loading and unloading white-zone etiquette. She sounded so snooty, as if we were all color-blind idiots.
“Oh, you know, ripping up the snow whenever I get the chance,” he said. “I just got back from snowboarding in Alaska. It. Was. Sick.”
Reed was a lunatic on his board. The guy wasn’t afraid of anything. I vaguely remembered being like that. Was it really only two years ago that I was a force to be reckoned with? I felt far older than my twenty-two years. Sometimes when I got on my board to run some practice jumps, I could have sworn I was at least fifty. Middle aged and terrified of falling in case I broke my hip like some feeble grandpa in his bathtub.
I tugged my orange knit cap tight to my head and hitched my snowboard higher on my shoulder. I didn’t need to go into that black tunnel of despair. That was not
how you faked confidence. “There’s supposed to be a car for us, right?”
“Black limo to the left.” Reed pointed through the sliding-glass doors. “I need to pee, so I’ll see you in the car.”
“Shit. No kidding? You’re house-trained now?”
He slapped my shoulder again. “Still the funniest guy I know.”
As I watched my old friend walk away, I shoved down my nerves. This wasn’t a fun trip for me. I was here to see if I still had the ability to be a champion. Could I overcome the horrible insecurities that attacked me every time I got on my board? Or would I crash and burn again?
I slipped out into the frigid air and zeroed in on the stretch limo parked a short distance away. I kept looking straight ahead, focused on the vehicle as a flurry of clicking shutters and blinding white flashes illuminated the area. Four photographers stood on the center island with a lane of traffic between them and our limo. They were running back and forth and hopping around like monkeys, trying to get the perfect angle.
I put my chin down and headed toward a group of three guys near the open door of the limousine. When they saw me, they fell silent. You could have heard a pin from my leg drop.
“Hey,” I offered.
“Dude, you made it.” A blond guy named Greg broke away and greeted me. “I missed ya. It’s been way too long.” I’d always liked Greg. He had a serene vibe few competitive snowboarders were able to achieve. His purple cap covered most of his flaxen dreads, and he was chewing on a toothpick as he studied me like the Dalai Lama.
We bumped fists, and I turned my back on the photographers. “Who invited them?”
“Since when do they need an invitation?” Greg scowled. “You look healthy.” He grabbed my bags and signaled the limo driver to come give a hand. The older man tossed down his cigarette and stomped on it before rushing over to help out.
The paparazzi being here was stressful enough, but when I caught the gaze of a lanky, redheaded guy leaning quietly against the hood of the limo, a buzz of excitement rattled through me.
Jesse Royce. Son of a bitch.
“Hey, Keith, over here,” one paparazzo shouted.
I was glad of the distraction. It gave me an opportunity to pretend like I hadn’t really noticed Jesse, even though that short glimpse of him had my heart trying to bang its way out of my chest. I sucked in a deep breath and focused on the photographer across the way.
The guy pushed his long black bangs out of his face as he trained his camera on me. His telephoto lens was big enough to get a nice shot of my nose hairs if he wanted.
“What do you think your chances are of getting back on the Olympic team, Keith?”
“Snappy Tom. What an awesome surprise.” I ignored his question and prayed the words that came out of my mouth hadn’t sounded as sarcastic as they had in my head.
“Wouldn’t miss your comeback for the world,” Snappy yelled, adjusting his aperture and clicking another billion shots.
My comeback. Ha. Let’s hope I
didn’t miss it. Snappy and his pals were making me a little self-conscious. I was glad I’d bothered to use gel in my hair and worn my best pair of skinny jeans. Lately I’d had trouble getting out of bed and brushing my teeth, so putting a little effort into my appearance today had been a stroke of good luck. The last thing I needed were random shots of me looking like I’d just crawled out of the gutter after a bender. The gossip papers would have a field day with those. Triple corks aren’t the only corks Keith Williams is into these days.
Those damn rag magazines loved puns.
I sure as hell hadn’t told anyone I was going to be taking part in Andy’s snowboarding documentary. I’d only grudgingly agreed to come along for the ride after Andy called me, nonstop, for two weeks, pleading. One of the riders he’d tagged to be in the film had dropped out, and he’d wondered if I would be interested in taking his place. I’d done my best to convince Andy I wasn’t a good choice. My crippling lack of confidence didn’t mix well with a camera if you asked me. Especially when you’re trying to keep the fact that you’ve completely lost your nerve a secret
. He hadn’t listened to me. Instead, he’d begun dropping by my condo unannounced with tequila to see if he could change my mind. I really like tequila, but that wasn’t what made me agree.
Andy had convinced me that if I wanted to resurrect my career, I needed to do it ASAP. There was new blood flooding into the sport of snowboarding constantly, and if I didn’t step up soon, I probably never would. He said the longer I was out of the sport, the easier it would be to disappear. I knew he was right. I was already beginning to feel like I shouldn’t even bother. Anytime I watched the new wave of younger riders on ESPN, I felt like I should give up. I’d never be as good as before, so why even try?
Andy’s nagging worked, and I’d finally agreed to be a part of his film. Snowboarding was the only thing I’d ever loved that I was really good at, and while my self-assurance had been deeply rattled, I wasn’t ready to give up yet. Besides, my therapist, Jack, persuaded me that being surrounded by old friends and also engaging in healthy, good-natured competition would be good for me.
“Of course you already know Jesse.” Greg pulled me over to introduce me to the guy I’d been nervously avoiding.
I was breathless as Jesse studied me with his shrewd green gaze for a moment before he stuck out his hand. When Jesse looked at you, it was hard not to feel like you were lying in a petri dish. His attention to detail was part of what made him an excellent reporter. “Keith. Good to see you again.”
“How are you, Jesse?” I offered my hand, and when Jesse accepted, the warm touch of his flesh against mine had my stomach fluttering. I’d forgotten how long and black his lashes were, and his full lips were almost distracting.
“I’m well.” His expression was pleasant. He didn’t seem flustered to see me at all.
We were being so civilized. You’d never know from this polite exchange that we’d spent one hot sweaty night in Tucson years ago, fucking each other’s brains out. God, he looked good. I remembered kissing that mouth and nibbling along his stubbly jaw.
“You’re coming along on the shoot?” I was irritated when my voice cracked on the last word like a prepubescent boy. But his presence on this trip was not something I’d been expecting, and it had me rattled.
“Yep. I’m excited.” Jesse was the first person I’d talked to in a month whose gaze wasn’t fastened on my leg while we spoke. I could see the wheels turning in his head as he took in my flustered demeanor. Would he see right through me?
I was tempted to call the whole trip off. I figured maybe I could lie to the guys and say something had suddenly come up. I mean, if people could be convinced that light beer tasted like real beer, then you should be able to get away with anything. But I needed this exposure. It was essential that credibility be restored to my reputation. Taking part in this documentary would be a great way to get noticed as a stable personality while easing my way back into the sport. But I had to admit, having a reporter embedded in the project, especially someone with instincts as good as Jesse’s, was dangerous.
“Surprised you’d make an appearance in a small-budget project like this, your highness.” A hard voice rang out across the sidewalk, and I turned to meet the cool gaze of Lance Thomson. He stared me down while blowing a big pink bubble with his gum.
“How’s it going, Lance?” Even though I was trying to play it cool, I was tempted to pop that fucking bubble all over his smug face.
Lance shrugged and sucked the gum back into his mouth. While he seemed pissed to see me, he didn’t seem surprised. His eyes were glittery and hard in the dreary lights of the underpass. “It’s super fantastic, Keith. Thanks for asking.”
Snappy Tom screeched from across the way, “Let’s get one of you and Lance together, Keith.”
That wasn’t going to happen. The press knew perfectly well we didn’t get along these days. We had in the beginning. But somewhere along the line, Lance had begun to resent me, and now we barely spoke to one another. Actually, what was I thinking? That’s exactly why the paparazzi would want a picture. Worst-case scenario, they had a nice picture. Best case, Lance and I would start throwing punches and try to kick each other’s ass. That right there would be some valuable film.
Most of us riders were buddies. I’d known Greg and Reed for at least four years. We’d trained and competed together for what felt like forever. None of us had spoken the last year and a half, but that wasn’t because they hadn’t reached out after my accident. They had. But I’d been a little preoccupied with drowning in self-pity. Andy had been the one who introduced us all years ago. Now that I thought about it, Andy was responsible for a lot of positive things in my life. He knew all my dirty secrets. The ones no one else knew. I’d known Andy since I was seventeen years old, when he’d discovered me doing half-pipes and rails at a resort. I’d been homeless, and Andy had fed me and let me crash at his apartment. He was impressed with my skill so much that he’d bought me a real board, instead of the old junky one I’d found, and dragged me kicking and screaming to enter my first half-pipe competition. I’d ended up placing first, and from there, the career of a rising star was born. Cue end credits.
Unfortunately, Care Bears and rainbows weren’t where my story was headed. But at least meeting Andy got me out of a horrible, desperate period in my teens, and for that I owed him everything.
“Dale pulled out last minute.” Lance piped up again, still watching me with slit eyes. “That’s why we’re blessed with his Great One’s presence.” I liked how the smart-ass used air quotes with his fingers.
“I doubt that’s the only reason Andy picked me.” I threw my shoulders back and put effort into sounding self-assured. Even as a little voice whispered, Are you sure about that?
“It’s not like I’ve been sitting on my couch, eating cheese curls and watching reality TV. I’ve been rehabbing like crazy. I’m in better shape than ever.” Jesus, if I said it with enough confidence, would they actually eat this shit up?
“Yeah, I heard you rode some gnarly spines with Hans down in Chile.” Greg slung an arm around me. “He said you’re an animal. We know you still got it, dude.”
I took the compliment, thankful Hans was the good friend I’d believed him to be. He’d talked me into going with him to Chile, even though I’d warned him I wasn’t sure I was mentally ready. It was a relief to know he’d kept many details of the trip to himself. Things like me breaking out in flop-sweat or throwing up from nerves every time I stood at the top of a mountain. Yeah, maybe Greg didn’t doubt that I still had it. But I sure as hell did.
“There’s no need to stroke his ego, Greg. He does enough of that himself,” Lance grumbled, walking back toward the airport terminal. “I’m gonna see what’s keeping Andy.”
“Hey, Lance,” I called after him. “When we get to the mountains, you might want to buy that bug up your ass a warm coat so it doesn’t freeze to death.”
Lance responded by flipping me the bird, and there was another frenzy of clicks from the direction of the photographers. When I heard Jesse chuckle, I stuffed my hands in my pockets and turned my back on him. This was going to be a nightmare with Jesse observing our every move.