Tendrils of clinging fog rose up off the ice, curling into claws, sinking into my skin, freezing my blood as it pumped through my body. Shaking, I looked around, seeking a friendly face, a familiar face, anything, something that wouldn't leave me feeling so alienated and alone. There was none. The judges' faces were blank, their mouths set in hard lines. The audience was no better. They seemed to be sneering at me from the bleachers. Even my coach, leaning over the boards, looked cold and distant.
The music came on. I pushed off on my ice skate as the first few phrases drifted down through the still air. The melody seemed right, at first, but as the program went on, it grew faster and faster, the notes harder and colder. It wasn't right. Nothing was right. My toe loop was wild and out of control. I landed it, but barely. Turning to my coach for help, I saw her shrug and mouth "go on." Trembling, I pushed forward.
The hardest jump—the double axel—loomed ahead. Quivering like a bowstring, I took off. I flew higher and higher, too high, so high that my arms flailed out of position and started pinwheeling. Yelling helplessly, legs dangling, the ice rushed toward me. I just knew I was going to die.
* * *
I sat up straight in bed, eyes wide, chest ballooning in and out, gasping for breath. The room was dark and still. I jammed my glasses on my face, and glanced at the digital clock on my night table. Three o'clock in the morning. Too early to be up.
Nightmares had been plaguing me for more than a week about the upcoming show. Tonight's dream had been the worst by far. My head swung around to glare at the calendar perched on the wall. Yes, it was still December 10, two weeks before the Christmas Eve ice show. Yes, I was still alive. Shaking, but alive.
I caught a glimpse of the mirror and groaned. My wiry red-brown curls stuck up almost vertically from my head, and my terror-stricken eyes had enormous bags under them. My twin, Sara, slept peacefully in the bed next to mine, her auburn hair lying in rippling waves on her pillow. She's just about as different from me as humanly possible. Graceful and elegant, Sara wows everyone on the ice with just a few cross-overs, while I have to do flips to get a little attention. Though we're both short and thin, Sara is slender, not scrawny like me. She brings to mind a willow, while I'm more like a scraggly thorn bush-prickly and ugly. Sara says I'm too hard on myself, but then, she always knows what to say.
Still, I love her. Even though she's perfect. With a sigh, I dropped back onto the pillows and waited for sleep.
* * *
"Toe loop! Cally, leg straight! Back cross-overs! Sara, don't lean in so far! Scratch spin, and step out! Very good!" called Coach Vanessa from behind the boards. Her face was happy and animated, so unlike the coach in my dreams. She skated out to meet us. "All right, girls, now you're going to have to do something difficult. I want you to go into a double axel from a curve on opposite sides of the rink, and then cross in midair. Cally, what's wrong?"
My face had gone white and I was sweating. Remembering the dream, and what my coach had urged me to do, had set my stomach churning. I ran my fingers through my bangs and mumbled, "Nothing."
"Good. For a minute there I thought you were going to fall over," said Vanessa briskly. "Now, get to it!"
Gulping, I got into the starting position and pushed off. Cross-over, crossover, step forward, and jump!!! I felt Sara go whizzing past me in a whirlwind of blue velvet skating dress before my leg shot out and I landed. Breathing a sigh of relief, I waited for Vanessa's approval. I wasn't disappointed.
"Awesome! Now, do it again." We practiced all afternoon until my leg muscles felt like jelly and I was actually looking forward to homework. "Can we practice more tomorrow?" I asked. "I feel like I'm going to collapse."
"Just do that jump combo one more time," urged Vanessa.
"All right, all right. Good for you, sister?"
"Definitely. Let's do it!"
Cross-over, cross-over. I glanced over my shoulder at Sara. She was out of line. "Sara, scoot!" I called to her. Step forward. Sara was still out of line. My leg swung forward without me thinking. Jump.
Time slowed to a crawl. We were going to crash, fast and hard. I couldn't move, couldn't stop, couldn't prevent the inevitable. The panicked look in Sara's eyes told me that she knew what I knew. Vanessa's shouting was a distant buzz in my ears. We crashed.
I flew backwards, hitting the ice with a whack that stole the breath from me. The sharp pain in my back receded to a dull ache as I slumped to the ice, stunned.
Sara hadn't been so lucky. She fell awkwardly to the ice, skidding across the rink. She was a limp pile of skater, face down on the ice.
* * *
"Sister, you sure know how to pack a punch," said Sara with a grimace. Her leg was in a cast, and stitches inched up her hand where my skate had slashed her skin.
"I told you I'm sorry!" I said in a frenzy of guilt. "I didn't mean to do it! It just . . . happened. What can . . . "
"Stop, stop," interrupted Sara, "it was really my fault. Should have scooted when you told me to. By the way, how's your back?"
She had remembered. "The doctor said I was lucky not to have cracked a rib. Anyway, I'm going to have some interesting-shaped bruises in the morning. You're the one everybody should be worried about though. When are you getting out of that thing?"
"Three weeks. It's only a fracture, Cally."
"A bad fracture. You won't be able to be in the Christmas show!"
"Stop fussing like a mama hen. I'm getting enough of that from Mother. She's firmly convinced that 'if you hadn't kept on with this demon sport this wouldn't have happened,'" said Sara in an uncanny impersonation of Mother. "As it is, you'll be lucky if she lets you skate in the Christmas show. I'll be lucky if she ever lets me skate again."
"She can't do that!" I protested. "It was my fault. Let her make me never skate again. But don't let her punish you."
Then the first part of what she said hit me. "Sara, I can't do the show alone! I mean, you're graceful and everything, but me! I . . . I . . . I wouldn't know what to do!" I was practically in tears. Do the show alone? Impossible. There was just no way that I could survive another two weeks of nightmares—they had been bad enough when I had Sara doing it with me. How could I do it alone?
My mouth opened to cry out, but the door swung open and Vanessa bustled in. She was in a worse state than I was, and that's saying something. Her eyes were red from crying, and her hands twisted in her lap. "Oh my God, Sara! I'm so sorry! I should have listened to you, Cally. If only . . . "
Sara raised a hand. "I just pulled Cally out of hysteria. Do I have to do it again?"she asked, one eyebrow raised.
Vanessa sighed. "You're right, as usual. I guess . . . I mean, this has never happened before. I just don't know . . . Sara, can you forgive me?" The look in her eyes made me catch my breath. Desperate and pleading. I'd never seen her look that way before.
"There's nothing to forgive—stuff happens,"smiled Sara. "Besides, you've got work to do." She jerked her head toward me.
"Oh! Of course! There's just enough time to change the program. We'll just cut the axels, and stick in a flip or something. All the side-by-sides can stay—we'll put some footwork in where the double spin used to be . . . "
Off and running, Vanessa didn't even notice my panic. I didn't have a choice. I'd have to skate. Alone.
* * *
I was alone on the ice, and it wasn't a dream. I was alone for the first time in my life—truly alone. My heart thumped so hard I shook, and I couldn't hold my hands steady. With every breath, icy daggers sliced into my lungs.
The rink was silent. The music hadn't started, and the audience was politely quiet. Vanessa glanced at me over the boards to see if I was ready. Our eyes met, and I sent her a wild, desperate look of mingled hope and anguish.
I knew I couldn't do it. Not without Sara. I couldn't ask for her, couldn't cling to her, couldn't hide behind her. She wasn't there, not even watching. She wasn't going to rescue me this time. Tears fought their way into my eyes as this realization plunged into my heart like a black sword.
Darkness ate into the corners of my sight. Swaying on the spot, I jerked my head about, desperately searching for a face, a face I knew, a face that would shelter me from my despair. But there was nothing, nothing but the glaring white of the ice and the dark mass of people. Nothing. No one.
I choked and breath wouldn't come. The world blurred and faded in front of my face. My eyes grew and grew as I fought the impending darkness closing in on me.
Then, a flash. A flash of silver, cutting through the black and the white, a flash of silver bright and pure. The silver of Sara's eyes.
A rush of air whooshed into my lungs as my stiff shoulders slumped in relief. Sara was there, her face pale with concern. Warmth flooded through me, and I could breathe again. I looked at her, pleading for help. She shook her head slightly. No, she was saying. No. I had to do this one on my own.
But I wasn't alone. I would never be alone. And with that inside my heart, I started to skate.