"...so Bill goes left, I go right and I hear this little yelp. I look back and Bill's, like, totally gone — there's just a pair of legs sticking out of the snow."
"Ha! What happened to his skis?"
"Got hooked on something and he double ejected, flew over the knoll head-first into the pow."
"Whoah! Did he find his skis?"
"No idea," the young skier told his female friend. "I watched him claw his way out and then I was like, 'later dude!' and skied out. He's probably still out there now, cursing my name! We should probably go back there next run to see if he's still there."
"No way! No friends on a powder day, right? We'll see him at lunch."
The two young skiers were hunched together on the left side of the chairlift, closest to the towers. Beside them was an older man, whistling softly to himself as he tapped his pole on his ski boot. On the inside seat was a snowboarder nearing middle age.
The four rode in silence for a little while.
The older man cleared his throat and broke the silence.
"Heard the highway is closed today."
"Really?" asked the girl.
"Best day ever," raved her friend. "Forty fresh, the alpine is open and the highway is closed... I'm so showing up late to work today."
"Light's pretty flat though. We should probably stick to the trees.."
"Maybe. It's not that busy, maybe we could hit Outer Limits and the burn first."
The middle-aged snowboarder leaned forward a little on the chairlift and pushed his chin deeper into the collar of his shell. Tiny flecks of ice in the wind stabbed at his cheeks like pins and needles, while small chunks of ice built up on his beard. The younger skiers seemed completely oblivious to the weather — one of them was wearing some kind of a hockey jersey and the other only had a light jacket. They were both wearing twin tips. Parks rats, he said to himself.
"Is this chair moving slowly or what?" he asked out loud.
"Too windy," said the older man. "When wind gets over 40 knots, this chair slows down to a crawl. Huh... The snow's nice but you can't see anything up here. Shoulda stuck to the lower mountain."
Just then the four were hit with a powerful gust of wind that knocked them all backwards into their seats, and pinned them there for a long moment — long enough to scare them all pretty badly. And then it went suddenly calm.
Visibility was already bad, but when they dared open their eyes again they found that they were enveloped by thick fog. They couldn't see much past the chairlift cable overhead, or even tell if they were still moving or not. They listened for the familiar rattle of tower wheels but heard nothing.
"What the hell was that?" asked the girl, slight panic in her voice. "That was crazy! I thought my skis were going to get blown off."
"Your skis? I thought my knee was going to rip apart. This snowboard is like a sail."
"I've been skiing here thirty-seven years, in every kind of weather," said the older man, his voice shaking. "And I've never, ever been hit with a gust of wind like that! That must have been a hundred and fifty klicks. Like a goddamn freight train!"
The younger male skier, leaned over the side to try and spot the ground.
"I can't see a friggin thing in this cloud," he said. "I don't think we're moving at all."
"All the emergency shut-offs must have been tripped by the wind," the older man said. "They have backup gas generators to keep the bullwheel turning, although it moves pretty slow. We could be here awhile. Might even have to rescue us."
"That's just great," said the snowboarder. "I literally only had time for one run today."
"Working?" asked the female skier.
"Nope," answered the man. "The wife just had a baby two days ago. They were both sleeping and I couldn't, so I snuck out for a run. Like, I literally snuck out. Ghosted the car down the driveway and everything so I wouldn't wake them."
"Nice!" said the male skier.
"Well, I haven't had a lot of days this year between work and the pregnancy, and I wasn't going to miss today..."
"Hello!" yelled out the young skier, cupping his hands to his mouth. "Hey-oh!"
He looked up to read their chair number. "You guys on Chair 40, can you see anything? Repeat: can...you... see... anything?"
There was no answer.
"What the hell, there was a full chair there," he said, and then he called out, "Answer me! Chair 39 commands you!"
"Probably can't hear you over the wind," said the older man, which is the moment they realized that there was no wind at all. It was completely calm.
"This is creepy," said the girl. "Hello? Hello!"
"If the fog is thick enough, it can muffle sound," said the older man. "You need a foghorn to cut through this soup."
The snowboarder took out his phone. "Well, that sucks. Better see how much trouble I'm in. Whoops, no bars."
The young skiers took out their phones as well. "Yeah, nothing. That's weird," said the male skier. "Tanya, didn't you just call me from this lift like half an hour ago?"
"Yeah. The service is fine out here. I've never had a problem."
"I'm thinking that the wind probably took out the cell tower," the older man suggested. "There's probably trees down all over the place. Power's out for sure..."
"Hey, did you guys see a flash?" the young skier asked after a pause.
"What, just now?" asked the snowboarder.
"No, like when the wind hit us. I could have sworn there was a bright flash just before it happened, like somebody took our picture."
"Oh yeah... I think I saw that," said the snowboarder. "After the wind hit I kind of forgot about it."
"Me too. I saw it too," said Tanya.
"Was it lightning?"
"Probably," the older skier sighed. "That's never good. They shut down the whole mountain whenever they get a lightning warning. Guess this one must have snuck through the radar or whatever. Pretty scary."
"It wasn't just lightning though," said the young skier thoughtfully. "Did you hear a scream, too?"
The snowboarder laughed. "I thought that was me screaming. But yeah, I heard something."
"Hold on," said the young skier, "I think we're moving."
Everyone on the chair cheered, and looked ahead into the gloom. It was impossible to tell if they actually were moving, but the cloud seemed to be at least. Suddenly a lift tower loomed out to the left of them, and just as quickly it vanished into the mist.
"Next one comes by, read it," said the older man. "There's 24 towers on this lift. I'm thinking we're at around 17."
The next tower came and they all peered into the white gloom trying to make out the number. But on the little metal plate there was no number, just a symbol.
"What the hell was that?" asked the young skier.
"It looked like a sideways eight," said Tanya.
"That was a math symbol," said the older man, puzzled. "It stands for infinity."
"What, is it April Fool's Day in December?" said the snowboarder. "What's going on here?"
"Next tower," said the older man. "We'll wait for the next tower."
The next tower after that was a sign of the Zodiac. The one after that had a cross, and the next a crescent. Tower after tower, symbol after symbol. And then nothing.
The four sat in silence, terrified. Tanya was crying a little and the snowboarder was cursing under his breath, but nobody dared to speak.
As they sat they strained their eyes as they peered into the whiteness, hoping to catch of glimpse of something, anything that would help them figure out where they were and what was going on. They took turns shouting and then Derek, the young skier, remembered his emergency whistle and blew for all he was worth. Like before, there was no reply.
"Something really odd is going on," said the older man, who finally introduced himself as Dave. "Do any of you feel cold?"
The snowboarder, Geoff, shook his head. "Not even a little."
"And what's the last thing you all remember, before we stopped?
"I don't know. There was a flash, like Derek said, and then there was a scream."
"Or screams," said Tanya and shuddered.
"And then?" Dave prompted. "What then?"
"Well, then nothing," said Derek. "Just nothing."
"So what are you saying Dave?" Geoff asked, turning to study the old man's face. There was no expression on it at all.
"I'm saying that something strange has happened here. We're not cold. We can't see anything. It feels like we're moving but we're not getting anywhere. And we've been here how long?"
Geoff took out his phone again to check the time and looked more closely this time. His heart fluttered. None of the symbols or characters on his phone were recognizable. It was like his phone had reset to another language, like Arabic or something. Some of the symbols looked familiar, but he couldn't make his eyes stick in one place long enough to make sense of things. He sat transfixed for a moment, pushing the home key, tapping the surface.
"Phone's busted," he said blankly, his hand shaking as he slid it back into his pocket.
"I'll check mine," said Derek. He took out his phone, switched it on and then, just as quickly, switched it off.
"What did it say?" asked Tanya.
Derek mumbled something inaudible.
"Derek," she repeated loudly, "what did it say?"
"I don't know," he said, despondently. "It's broken or something."
"So how long do you think we've been here?" Tanya asked the group. "They have to be coming for us by now, right?" Nobody answered.
Time passed as they sat. It could have been minutes and it could have been days. At times it felt like they were asleep, only to wake up and start talking again, picking up the thread of conversation mid-sentence where they had left off. Nobody felt cold, thirst or hunger. Nobody had to use the bathroom.
"I felt like I was about to say something," said Derek dreamily, "then I forget what it was."
Geoff swore loudly. "I should have stayed home. I should be with my wife and child right now, but no, I had to sneak up the mountain and now I'm in this — this hell!"
"Not hell," Dave corrected him, his voice calm and collected. "This is what they call Limbo."
"Limbo? Like when you dance under that pole?"
Dave sighed. "I didn't go to much Sunday school, Geoff, but Limbo is a place that's between heaven and hell. People go there that weren't baptized or died as babies or whatever, and are innocent. There they have to wait for Judgment Day."
"That's scary," said Tanya.
"No it's not," said Dave, calmly. "It's nothing. And maybe Judgment Day is up to you."
The old man laughed then and let his head fall onto his hands. The others heard him murmuring under his breath, catching the odd word here and there. One was "sorry," another "amen." The last was "goodbye."
At some point after that Dave disappeared. The others weren't immediately aware he was missing, but they felt it before they turned their heads to see the empty seat. It was as if they blinked and he was gone. Geoff called his name from the chair, over and over, wondering if he fell.
He looked over at the others. Derek was holding Tanya and they were crying softly.
"What are we going to do?" he asked them.
"Make peace with it I guess," said Derek, and turned to Tanya. "You ready?"
Tanya nodded. "I'm ready. I'm sorry about your wife and child Geoff. You'll meet them again someday. I know it."
"What are you talking about? What are you doing?"
Derek lifted the bar gently, smiled at Geoff, and wrapped his arm around Tanya as the two slipped off the chair into the void. There were no screams, no sickening thuds of two bodies crashing into the snow. Just more nothing.
"They left me," said Geoff, his voice cracking. "They frigging left me here!"
In his head he heard Derek's last words. "Make peace with it I guess."
With what? What was that flash? Where were they?
"No. No, no, no, no!"
Geoff cried and screamed. He screamed the name of his wife and child over and over again.
"I not jumping," he yelled. "Do you hear me? I'm not going anywhere, unless it's home. Hello! HELLO! ANYBODY! PLEASE!"
He stared into the void, his eyes wet with tears. The void stared back.
"... so I look over at Mark who is doing his thing, and I don't see the mogul field over the rise in front of me. Suddenly I'm in the air, arms and legs flailing, and I crash on this big mogul, bounce into the air, and crash again."
"Mark doesn't see me, I'm winded so I can't cry out. My skis are off and bouncing down the hill, my poles are up the hill behind me about fifty feet..."
"So what did you do?"
"I sat down, and had this, like, full body cramp for a minute. I thought I'd broken something. Some guy skied my poles down. Everybody on the chairlift is cheering..."
John shuddered, listening to his friends. He was the only snowboarder in the group and was squished into the end seat of the chairlift.
"What was that?" he said suddenly.
He looked up quickly to make sure the chairlift's grip was holding, and relaxed.
"I thought I heard something."
"Like what?" his friend asked.
"Kind of like a scream." He looked around to see if anybody had crashed in the area under the chairlift, then looked back up at the grip. "I don't know what it was, but I heard something."
He shuddered again and felt a chill go up his spine. It was like something cold was moving back and forth through his body. He felt ill.
"I think... I think the chair must have made a weird noise," he decided, his mouth suddenly dry. "It's probably nothing. I'll tell the guy at the top."
"That's a good idea," his friend said seriously. "In the meantime we stay the hell away from... let's see... Chair 39."