|Ice Dance By Hallan Mirayas
by Hallan Mirayas
© Hallan Mirayas -- all rights reserved
"Skis and poles, check… munchies for the road, check…"
"Cash for tolls, um, check… map… No map. Jay, how on earth can you find anything in this train wreck you call a car?" I called, one knee on the ground as I dug through the road-trip rubbish that covered the floor of my brother's Chevy Prism.
"Hall-" Jay gave an exasperated sputter. "Harry, will you hurry up and get in already? If we don't have it, we don't need it!"
"Right. Just like the time we wound up in New York instead of Ohio? Ah, here it is. Under the seat."
My brother paced impatiently while I ran down my mental checklist, shooting off an "I told you so" smirk when nothing turned up missing, and tossed the keys to me. I tossed them back. "No, Jay, I don't want to be learning how your car handles when it's been snowing for the past twelve hours."
"Says the guy who nearly snapped my fingers snatching the keys a couple of years back. Well, can't say I didn't make the offer," he said as he heaved an over-dramatic sigh. Jay takes after my father's side of the family: fairly tall and lean, with curly hair. His nose was just slightly crooked from a childhood accident involving a bike, a leash, and a really stupid dog. As he got in, he asked once more, "You sure you don't want to drive?"
I smirked at him over the top of the car, ears tipped slightly back and whiskers pricked just a touch upward. "Weren't you the one who was in such a hurry to be going just now?" I replied sweetly, then swung the door open and climbed in. Unlike my brother, I used to take after my mother's side: shorter, bigger shoulders, and wavy hair. (Now, of course, I take after the cat, though SCABS was kind enough to leave some of the wave in my mane.) I waved to Mom from the passenger side and called, "See you later!" while Jay started the car, the electric motor humming to life.
"Drive safe!" Mom called back from the doorway, waving goodbye as Jay backed the car out. After shifting the car into drive, he popped a CD into the player, and the speakers assaulted me with a crunchy guitar intro at full blast.
"AUUGH!!! Geez, Jay, do you have to have it so loud?" I complained, one hand covering my ears as the other reached for the volume control. The bass was loud enough to make my head feel like an anvil. In use.
"What??" he yelled just as I turned it off, adding insult to injury. The grin on his face suggested he'd timed it that way, just to tease me. The laugh that followed confirmed it.
"Creep." I glowered at him.
His replied with a big, cheesy smile. "You know you love me." After several seconds of frosty silence, he dropped the smarmy grin. "Alright. I forgot to turn it down, okay? Sorry."
"Hmmph," I hmmphed, and turned toward the window, letting him stew for a bit and trying not to start laughing.
Jay snickered. "You know, if you're going to act mad, you'd better get your tail in the act, too. I've seen you laugh often enough to know the signs."
"Curses! Foiled again!"
My brother and I hadn't always gotten along so well. I leaned my head against the window, quietly watching the snow-covered scenery go by as I cast my mind back to a particular incident…
"Hey, fuzzy," Jay said as he nudged me in the side. "What're you thinking about so heavily over there?" He swerved the car slightly rightward toward the highway guardrail. "The weight shift is affecting the handling."
"Aagh!" I exclaimed, startling me out of my reverie with the movement, and I could feel my tail frizzing. "I could have lived without the demonstration, thank you," I said, prying my clawtips from the foam rubber of the door handle. "I was just thinking about the dent in the bathroom door. It was lucky you knew where the Super Glue was or we'd probably have gotten grounded for a month instead of a week."
He laughed. "No, what was lucky was me closing the door just in time to avoid a dent put in my skull."
"You always did have a good sense of timing. Especially when it was at my expense," I said as I smoothed down my tail fur.
"Is it my fault you had such a quick temper?"
"Yes." I had mellowed quite a bit after our parents divorced. "Did you ever learn when to stop pushing peoples' buttons?"
"No," Jay replied with an enigmatic smirk. "Though I can occasionally take a hint a little smaller than a flung statuette." A chuckle followed. "You know what else was lucky? You managing to find all the pieces and put them back together right." At my reply of 'true,' he reached down and turned the radio on again, a little quieter.
After listening quietly to a few songs, I asked, "So how did you find this place anyway? A ski resort that caters to SCABs?"
"Do you remember the tour the bible college sent the choir on the year before last, just before Christmas? The one that wore me out so much that you felt you had to wake me three times on Christmas morning?" He glanced pointedly in my direction.
"Now that I think about it, that pillow wakeup call this morning did seem familiar," I grinned back at him. I'd gotten creative for the second and third times I tried to wake him up, the second time involving the smelliest sock I could find draped across his face. "Can I help it that I wanted to open presents sometime before the spring thaw?"
"Yes," he mimicked my earlier reply, then turned his attention back to the road and his earlier question. "Anyway, the college has really been trying to show people with SCABS that Christians are not all bigoted throwbacks to the early days of the AIDS epidemic. I think the lesson is also aimed at we future ministers, too. We've got a lot of burnt bridges to rebuild thanks to anti-SCABS idiocy."
Jay sighed and changed the subject by gesturing slightly to a CD caddy on the floor next to my feet. "Pick something. I tried to grab selections I thought you'd like, but your tastes are so eclectic that you're hard to pick music for."
"Actually, bro," I said, twisting sideways, "I noticed while I was packing that you had the Lord of the Rings Trilogy on CD in the backseat. Mind if I put that on?"
Jay paled, then punched the steering wheel in irritation. "Great! That was supposed to go back to the school library before Break!" After a moment, he sighed. "Oh, well. Can't do anything about it right now. I'm not driving all the way to Minnesota from here. Sure, put it in. It's a good story and we've got plenty of drive-time to listen to it. By the way, did you get the weather report?"
"Yeah. Snow ending within an hour or two, then temps a little above freezing for most of the day. It'll get cold later, but I expect we'll be home before then."
It was an eventful afternoon, to say the least. The ski resort was indeed set up for SCABs. The boots and skis came in a much wider range of sizes and shapes, and a high-mass lift had been installed using sleds and chains rather than cables and hanging seats. The liability waivers had all been placed on computer, with voice-adjustable holographic keyboards and voder linkups. Even with an extremely user-friendly interface, though, the form itself was huge. "So it's true what they say about computerized forms versus paper forms," I said, nudging my brother with an elbow.
"At least with paper, there's a physical limit to how big a form can be," I said, pointing to the double-digit number of pages listed.
Jay smiled widely. "True, but we don't have to sort through all that. I called ahead and made reservations, remember?" He paused, apparently waiting for me to gesture impatiently at him. I did, adding a frown for good measure. "Annnnd… this helps us, how?"
Leaning over, he started hitting the 'back' button, flipping through the handful of pages I'd already finished. When I started to protest, he explained, "Part of the reservation process is detailing any handicaps, whether that happens to be deafness, a missing leg, or SCABS. This helps them streamline the form for us." Back at the first screen, he typed in a password and the form flickered. The number of pages dropped to three.
After a few surprised blinks, I scowled at him. "And you were going to tell me this… when?"
Jay glanced at his watch and deadpanned, "In about five minutes. Maybe ten."
Three hours later, Jay found me tucked into a corner of the lodge, sipping at a cup of hot chocolate with a straw. "You sure you can handle that?" he asked. "Chocolate's bad for you, remember?"
I pulled a small pocket menu from a coat pocket and flipped it open with one hand, tapping a disclaimer under the hot chocolate listing. 'Imitation hot chocolate. Certified animorph-safe', it read. While he was reading that, I slid the cup across the table to him (after removing the straw) and watched carefully. Just as he took a sip, I very deliberately licked a drop of cocoa from my whiskers, and grinned as he snorted a laugh.
"That's evil, bro," he said, wiping his face.
"What?" I asked with an innocent smile. "Imitating the cat just to make you laugh, or demanding that you get me a new cup now that you've done a spit-take in that one?"
Jay looked down at the cup as if seeing it for the first time. "This is payback for not telling you that password earlier, isn't it?"
I widened my smile into a toothy grin.
Jay laughed. "That's really evil, bro…"
"Thank you. I've been practicing. Wanderer and Jubatus make great role models for wit."
Jay laughed again, then wagged a finger at me. "Just don't forget who is the learner and who is the master," he said theatrically as he turned to get another cup.
A few minutes later, we both had fresh cups, and Jay remarked as he settled down across from me. "This stuff actually isn't that bad. Not as rich as I normally like it, but not bad…" Jay and I had, from childhood, both enjoyed cocoa double-strength, or even triple-strength, in my case. I couldn't handle that much chocolate anymore, thanks to SCABS playing with my internals just enough to make chocolate unhealthy (though, thankfully, not poisonous), but Jay's taste for the stuff was unabated. Blowing across the steaming cocoa, he asked, "Hey, did you hear what caused all that ruckus at the ski lift earlier?"
I scowled, ears flat and tail twitching as I grumbled my reply.
"You what?" Jay cupped an ear as a noisy group of teenagers clumped by in their heavy ski boots.
"I said," I growled through clenched teeth once they'd passed, "I got my tail caught on the chair, okay?"
Jay blinked twice, his jaw hanging slightly open. "H-how?" he asked, trying desperately not to laugh.
I curled my tail around, scowling, then grabbed the end and lifted the tip into view above the table. The insulated sleeve that kept it warm was torn at the end. "The sleeve got hooked on a bolt. And since it's claw-resistant fabric, it didn't tear until the lift had already turned and started dragging me down the hill."
"Oh," he said, covering his mouth with his hand, eyes crinkling around the corners. "Ouch." He snorted, and I kicked his boot under the table. "I'm sorry to-" he snorted louder. "Sorry to hear that. Is that why you're tucked in the corner like that? To stay out of view?"
"No. I'm in the corner so I don't have people walking behind me. In heavy plastic ski boots."
After that, the conversation meandered for a while, across the usual topics: the slopes (where Jay had managed a crash or two himself), school (Jay wanted a firsthand account of me smacking Eric Neumann), girlfriends (and my unconcerned lack thereof), then finally found its way to cars.
"Given any thought to a replacement for your crunched Chevette?" my brother asked as he crumpled a paper cup he'd just emptied of hot cocoa and lobbed it into a nearby garbage can. "It's been over a year now, and Mom's probably getting tired of ferrying you around."
I looked down at my own cup and swirled the dregs of chocolate around a bit before replying. "I ride the bus most of the time, so I don't really need a car. Besides, the roads are all a mess right now, and I'd rather not learn the quirks of a new car while performing in the Ice-Capades."
Jay eyed me for a few moments, with that look he always gets just before he's about to make trouble. "You know, Dad just got a new car, and his old one's still pretty nice."
"No," I replied with a scowl.
"You could buy it off him-"
"No." I could feel my ears flattening.
"If you asked-"
"-he might even give-"
"What part of NO don't you understand?!" I thundered, out of my seat before I even realized I was standing. Without waiting for a reply, I stormed out, ignoring both the stares from onlookers and the protests from my tail at being lashed about in the obstacle-laden room. Out the door I went, snatching my skis and poles from the rack as I passed.
Behind me, the door slammed, and a hand landed on my shoulder, pulling hard. "Hey! It's not my fault you're scared to drive!" Jay yelled angrily as I turned.
My roar, delivered point-blank, knocked him clean off his feet.
Ow. I rubbed my aching throat as the ski lift rumbled me slowly skyward, the chill breeze ruffling through the thin fur on my face. Why did I do that? Why did I blast him and then walk away like that? A pair of skiers swooshed their way down the hill below me, but the noise seemed muffled, distanced by my introspection. What is wrong with me? The answer came back a lot faster than I would have liked, with a mental image of my crushed Chevette in the ditch, its roof crumpled like cheap tinfoil. It had made the front page of the local newspaper, and Mom kept the picture in a scrapbook. You're scared, stupid. You're so scared you start shaking just thinking about it. See? My ears twitched at a rattling sound, my ski poles bouncing off each other, held in one shaky hand. I laid them against my lap with a growl and willed my hand to stop shaking. When that didn't work, I pinned my hand in place with my other arm and looked up to see the approaching landing.
"Shut up," I grumbled aloud.
Or what? You're going to roar at yourself again? The mocking tone set a scowl on my face as I swung off the ski lift. The lodge beckoned at the bottom of the hill. You know what you have to do. At least go see if he's okay. I sighed. "Last run, I guess… maybe I can at least talk him into driving home."
I found Jay sitting at our table when I returned to the lodge, a bottle of Advil in one hand and a cup of what smelled like hot chocolate in the other. I bought a cup of hot cider, snagged a straw to drink it with, then sat down across from him and waited for him to say something.
He didn't. He just sat there, occasionally taking a drink, but otherwise just watching me like he was expecting something.
"Are you okay?" I asked, ears and whiskers drooping.
"What?" he replied loudly. "I can't hear you. -Someone- roared in my face earlier."
"Okay, okay, I'm sorry. I lost my temper."
He snorted. "Yeah, all over the ski resort. I just spent the last ten minutes talking the ski patrol out of throwing you out for nearly giving half their customers heart attacks. Do you have any idea how loud you are when you do that?"
"Um…" My ears sagged further as I sank lower in my chair. A typical lion's roar can be heard from as far as five miles away, chimed an unwanted snippet of memory from a nature show I'd watched years ago, in an annoyingly cheerful voice. Images sprang to mind of nearby bystanders staggering or even tripping and falling over. I'd really lost it.
He sighed. "The good news is that, rattled nerves aside, nobody got hurt. Aside from my head, which is killing me. Which means…" He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the car keys, holding them out to me. "I'm deaf, you're driving."
"Take the keys, Harry."
"Have I mentioned I hate you?"
"Daily." He reached across the table and slapped the keys into my unwilling palm. "You're still driving."
The drive back to the interstate was quiet. Inside the car, the radio announced that the cold front had arrived sooner than expected and temperatures were dropping all over the state. Impulsively, I flicked off the intrusive noise, and struggled vainly to get my ears unglued from the back of my skull. The narrow, two-lane road didn't help matters, its sides banked steeply to waist height with plowed snow. After a few minutes of glancing sideways at my increasingly claustrophobic driving, Jay reached over and put his hand on my leg, gently gripping the fabric of my jeans. "Easy on the gas, bro… you're okay." I glanced down at the speedometer, which had crept upward while I wasn't watching. "There's no need to hurry," he said soothingly, the needle lazily sliding back toward 50 mph as I let the car coast. This brought us up behind a train of two cars as the bridge over the interstate approached, and I noticed a line of vehicles on the offramp backed up behind a massive road-salt-dispensing dump truck that was slowly making the turn.
Suddenly, the salt truck lurched sharply forward, threatening to overshoot into our lane. The brake lights of both cars in front of me snapped into warning as each visibly started skidding. My own foot, already stomping the brake, reported back the sickening 'flat' feel of locked-up wheels sliding on ice. Pumping the brakes did nothing except eat up the buffer space I'd left between cars and fill my mouth with the coppery taste of fear. Pushing past a moment of panic, I swerved sharply right onto the shoulder, narrowly missing the car in front of me, and fought with the steering wheel as the snow on the shoulder tried to pull me off the road and over the side of the overpass embankment, a slope that could flip us in a far too familiar manner.
I snapped the wheel back left with a defiant growl, barely avoiding the bridge's guard rail… and the horizon blurred as the whole car started to spin. Overcorrected!, my brain shouted as the lightweight Chevy Prism dove nose-first between the two cars that had been in front, both of whom had managed to skid to a stop. Time suddenly seemed to crawl as I glanced to the right, past my brother, feeling the car sliding sideways, and saw the first car's tail lights lined up perfectly for a T-bone crash. My God, I thought in sudden, terrible realization, that will crush the whole passenger side! And there was nothing I could do to stop it. I clenched my eyes shut and braced for impact, not wanting to see it happen, so all I felt was a sharp lurch forward to the right and then… silence.
That didn't feel like a crash, I thought after a moment, and cracked an eye open. More like a bouncing off a padded wall. I found myself gazing back at the second car, a red sedan now that I had a moment to notice. The driver was an unexpectedly pretty, dark-haired lady in what looked like a business outfit, who was staring back at me with a look of open-mouthed shock... or possibly even awe. After a few more moments of mutual staring, I looked to the right, past my brother, who was still sitting there looking stunned. Only a foot away from the passenger door was a massive white pickup truck, matched as perfectly in position next to my car as if we were sitting in a parking lot.
Jay said something at that point. I think. I have no idea what, because I suddenly realized that the wheel was still pointed left, when to do what just happened, it would need to have been pointed right. I started shaking, put my head down on the steering wheel, and gave thanks.
Jay's hand came to rest on my shoulder. "You okay, bro?" he asked, sounding as shaken as I felt.
I swallowed with difficulty around the lump in my throat, then slowly nodded. "Yeah… but I think your steering wheel may need repairs." My claws had dug deep furrows into the foam rubber covering.
He smiled wanly at the weak joke, then asked, "You want me to drive?"
Shaking my head, I whispered, "I'll drive," then took a few deep breaths to steady myself and restarted the car.
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