It has to be so that I almost sit on your feet, he said. Like this. He reached behind and hurried my ankles closer to his body. You hold the rope, no I hold the rope, no, ready, one two three.
Snow gargled under us and bright parkas streaked by. We tipped through the furrow, faster on the grooves of strangers. It bounced a laugh out of me and cold air swelled in my throat. Still, that laugh that sounded like a recording of a laugh was mine, and when we finally slanted to a stop at the flat part I could hear he was laughing too.
You're laughing, I said.
I'm laughing at you laughing, he said. Look at that big red face.
I took off my gloves and felt for my smile: cartilage balled at my cheeks.
Two sleds split around us like a blade of grass splits, a singular path still evident behind them, the children riders urgent for the coming dismount. Then they were halfway back up again, shimmying with effort from their big black boots.
We were waiting with our bent knees and rope taut like someone was painting our portrait, or our fathers were on the way down to haul us back up.
This is the worst part, he said.
The hill, we were cradled in its nape and unwilling.
The hill was white and the sky was white and it made me want to lie down. Like in a bed with white sheets. Once I did maybe twenty years ago when I was young and small and alone down here and someone had to swerve almost into a tree and my dad had to come down to get me and apologize to the person and by the time we got back up it was time to go.
We're alone now, I said.
Alone together, he said.
That's what I meant, I said.
Well, there's always this, he said, lifting the flask, pretty once, probably, before anyone had touched it but now greased with palms and finger-spotted.
On the road the night before he had said No, in this scenario you're more likely to die, because my body will be too slow to react and you'll tense up. He was taking a turn too fast when he said it and I was tensing up.
To his flask still I said No thank you.
We were alone in the white swath. Separated even from the trees like someone had taken an eraser and whitened gone the world between us and them.
Everyone at the top seemed waiting for us, maybe. The children with more fathers than I'd ever seen were up and rearranging and being pushed. Everyone in their almost-tribal brights. At the dash of sky it seemed they were dancing with all the squatting and jumping and faces pressed near to faces. Maybe they were all positioning to come get us, to each take an inch of rope and pull.
It's nice down here, he said. Quiet.
We were still leaning from a speed that had gone. Our threads garish this close up in the greyed-out sun.
They seem far away, I said. I wonder how far away we seem.
The trees had no faces or weren't looking at us. I tried to press a star into the snow with my hand but it was too frozen and cut a hole instead. His wind-burnt ears teased from the seam of his hat like red tongues. His only face to me was a hat with dog-hair static. I put my face in his back and everything went dark. There wasn't even a smell on him: it had come off like a ribbon down the hill.
I rubbed my eyes hard. A yellow sun of my making pushed through and then was gone.
Squint, he said. That hill behind us could be a cloud.
I squinted. It seemed to float up and off taking all its people with it.
Are you doing it? he asked. Squint at everyone and it's like it's only us left in the world.
I was done squinting. In fact, I blinked. Still the hill was gone. I opened my eyes wide and shut them and opened them but the hill and its people were gone. I rubbed my eyes hard and found the sun again but when I finished the yellow sun and the hill and the people were all gone.
Told you, he said.
I looked up at the sky. A craggy shadow of dark cloud was lifting away from us: the underside of the hill.
Where are they going? I asked.
He dragged from the flask and I closed my eyes again. He became a white ghost on my eyelids and no one made a sound.