It wasn’t often that Levi Cutler came within a hair’s width of dying. But if he’d known biting the dust was on today’s agenda, he might’ve done things differently, like called the waitress who’d tucked her number into his pocket the other night or learned to brew his own beer.
Forgive himself for his past mistakes . . .
Sitting back on the gondola bench, he looked out the window at the afternoon winter wonderland of North Diamond Ski Resort. The sky had been clear when he’d arrived, but in the past twenty minutes, that had changed. Snow came down like white fire and brimstone, leaving visibility at zero. He knew what he’d see if it’d been clear—three hundred and sixty degrees of jagged snow-covered mountain peaks stretched as far as the eye could see, and a glimpse of Lake Tahoe due east, its waters so blue, so deep and pure, you could see a dinner plate three hundred feet beneath its surface. One of his favorite science facts, and he had many, was that if by some cataclysmic event the entire lake tipped, the spillage would cover California under fourteen inches of water. As a kid, he’d really wanted to see that happen. As an adult, he preferred the water right where it was.
A gust of wind jostled the gondola. The storm that no one had seen coming was kicking into gear. He’d hoped to get a few runs in before having to face the reason he was back in Tahoe in the first place, but that wasn’t seeming likely. Nearing the top of the mountain now, the gondola rose past towering pine trees coated in thick, powdery snow, swaying in the wind, resembling two-hundred-foot-tall ghosts.
The gondola, built for sturdiness, swayed with the trees, giving him a quick, stomach-dropping vertigo. But being in the business of knowing risks and algorithms, he knew the chances of dying in a gondola were nearly nil.
On the other hand, the risk of dying while skiing—especially in this weather—was a different game altogether. The smart decision would be to turn around at the top and go back down the mountain. Especially since the snow kept coming, harder and faster now, thick and heavy, slanting sideways thanks to the strong headwind. The gondola did the same. He might spend most of his time on a computer these days, creating tech solutions to fix supposedly unfixable problems, but he’d grown up here. He’d spent his teen years working on this very mountain. As he knew all too well, anything could happen in a blink of an eye.
Even as he thought it, the gondola swung again, hard enough to rattle his teeth. Yeah, he was definitely going back down. No reason to be that guy who didn’t pay attention to his surroundings and ended up splat, face-first into a tree.
The gondola peaked the top ridge and slowed as it slid toward the end of the ride. A lift operator opened the door. He was maybe seventeen, and he gave Levi a “stay seated” gesture. “Sorry, sir, but we just got word, right after you boarded.”
“No problem.” Levi had been there, with his job on the line as he told belligerent tourists that no, as a matter of fact, they couldn’t risk their lives on the mountain. “Need any help clearing people out?”
The kid shook his head. “We’ve been sending guests back down and got almost everyone off the mountain. The gondolas in front of you are empty. We’re just waiting on one more employee. After she loads, I’ll be right behind you on a snowmobile.”
A woman appeared in the doorway. She nodded at the kid, then stared down at the one-inch gap between the platform she stood on and the tram floor. With an audible gulp, she clasped her necklace in a fist and hopped over the gap the same way that Levi’s six-year-old niece, Peyton, did when getting onto an airplane.
The woman darted past him to the opposite bench, as close to the window as she could get, and even though they were the only two people on the whole thing, she didn’t acknowledge his existence. Instead, she closed her eyes and began to mumble to herself, something about how ironic it was to have “survived a whole bunch of bullshit only to die in the storm of the century while inside a tin can hanging by a hook on a mountainside.”
The gondola bounced and she gasped, flinging her hands out in front of her like a cat trying to gain traction on linoleum. She was covered from head to toe in heavy winter gear, the only thing visible being the long strands of her wavy dark red hair sticking out from under her ski cap.
As the gondola made the turn and began heading down the mountain now, she brought her legs up on the bench and dropped her head to her knees.
“You okay?” Levi asked.
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