At age fifteen, Katie Wilder might be one of the greatest figure skaters in the world, but no one even knows she exists. When a childhood accident leaves her face so severely scarred that she wears a mask, Katie never leaves the Ice Castle, the rink owned by her father, a once-famous coach. Skating since she could walk, and without friends and distractions, every moment is dedicated to her passion - skating - under her father's guidance.
However, when Olympic hopefuls come to train, her safe and private world is gone. Katie searches for the courage to not only show the world what she can do on the ice, but more importantly, make her first friend, and start to live a life that extends outside the rink.
Randall Hicks and Hailey Hicks are father and daughter. Randall's books have been featured on The Today Show, CBS This Morning, Sally Jessy Raphael and others. This is Hailey's first novel.
K, here’s the bio.
Katie Wilder. Fifteen. Blonde and blue. What my dad calls willowy, which is polite for “no boobs.”
Skater. As in ice.
Legit. No exaggeration.
Not my favorite story, so details later, but third and fourth-degree burns to my face and neck when I was three—think marshmallows in a fire. And yeah, skin really does turn black when it burns. At least the dark skin contrasts nicely with my blonde hair. It gives me more color options when selecting from my many party dresses for the constant invitations I receive for tea parties and social galas.
Don’t believe me? Google Image it. You’ll even see my face there. Last I checked it was on page four, second row, third from the left, but it moves around the page. So go ahead, do it. You'll see. Not my whole face due to confidentiality, but enough for me to know it's me. In the name of science, shared with the world.
Actually, don’t. Because you’ll hate me if you do. And yourself.
Trust me, you will. Never having had a single friend in my life (a dad and a dog don’t count), I’d given it some thought. Like can’t-sleep-all-night thought, and here’s the circle of hate . . .
If you see my face, or a face like mine, you will feel
Then the revulsion again, wishing you’d never seen it. Like a bloody car wreck you don’t want in your memory bank. Now comes the guilt for what you feel, then hating yourself for your shallowness, for wishing people like me didn’t exist. So then you’d hate me, for making you hate yourself.
Lose, lose, all the way around.
But in a weird way, figuring it out actually made me feel better, the hatred/fear/pity/revulsion thing in others, and the friendless/faceless thing that is me. Life’s like a roll of the dice in the cosmos, and mine came up with a number that is not supposed to exist. Whatever. Still, it gave me some peace in my aloneness. My meness. An acceptance for what is, and what will never be.
And I can live with that.
I have to.
So since no googling (we agreed right?), here’s the selfie. Believe me, your imagination will be kinder than reality.
1. Imagine a face made of wax.
2. Put face in oven.
3. Leave face in oven until severely melted.
4. Remove from oven.
I’ve been told I’m actually “lucky.” Ha! I guess God really hooked it up for me. At least my body is unaffected. In fact, it’s actually perfect. (Well, except for those mosquito bites I have for breasts.) But athletically a perfect body anyway.
Enough about my face though, or lack thereof. I don’t dwell on it. What I do instead is skate. Night and day. How good am I? The truth? I mean, I didn’t exactly sugarcoat the whole no face thing. So my skating?
Damn good. Olympic good. In the practice rink anyway. Of course, the real test is competition, but that’s not possible for me. I know only one rink. My rink. The Ice Castle in Lake Arrowhead, in the San Bernardino mountains of southern California. Yes, SoCal has mountains. Snow even.
Skating is the family business. I may have got a slap in the face from God—wait that’s kind of funny—get it—slap in the face? LOL. Anyway, maybe I got shortchanged in that department, but I got a double dose of skating genes from my parents. Both were figure skaters and almost Olympians. Dad became a coach. Gloria (I refuse to call her Mom) became . . . absent.
I think somehow I’d have found my way on skates even if my dad hadn’t laced me up at 18 months. Walking and skating were one and the same, skating just easier. A fish in the ocean could not feel more at home than I do on the ice. I love that I can jump higher than any other woman on blades in the world—at least according to my dad. That I can do a triple Axel as easily as skipping over a crack in the sidewalk—that is if I’d ever walked on a sidewalk. But mostly, I love it for one big reason.
When I’m on the ice, it’s the only time I forget that
That’s why I live on the ice.
I hate calendars. Calendars are for people with things to do. And people to do them with. Friends. In other words, a life. What could be a crueler invention for someone like me? I’ve never gone to a movie theater. Never eaten in a restaurant. Been in a store. Gone on a bicycle ride. No grade school sleepovers or Chuck E. Cheese birthday parties. No school. And I’ll certainly never get married. Or have a baby.
But I was alright with all that. Really. My world was peaceful. Safe. Predictable. Just the way I wanted it, and just the way things should be for someone like me. Besides, movies taught me all I needed to know about the outside world—and thanks—but I’ll take a pass. Mean Girls, High School Musical and The Fault in Our Stars showed me the teenage life cycle: dis, dance and die. Hollywood wouldn’t lie. So I was content in my perfect solitary world.
And then it all changed.
I got up before dawn to get in two hours of ice time before breakfast. I was just getting off the ice when I heard the phone, so it was me getting Uncle Robbie, my dad’s brother. Just after 8:00 a.m., early for him to call.
“Katie, Katie!” So excited he said my name twice. “Get your dad! Please. Right away!” It was positive excitement, so I wasn’t alarmed. Just curious.
“Uncle Robbie, what—”
“Just get him, honey! Please. Right now. No! No! Never mind! I’m coming over. Tell him I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
With that he was gone. Unlike him to interrupt me, not to mention hang up on me. And excitement wasn’t a word you’d associate with Uncle Robbie. His idea of excitement was a new sweater vest. On sale.
His cabin was just a mile and a half away, but on the curvy mountain roads of Arrowhead that meant at least ten minutes. That gave me time for my usual after-workout shower, a five-minute blast of steaming water followed by 60 seconds at max cold. I was drying my hair when I heard Uncle Robbie let himself in the kitchen via the back door. I could hear the sound of my dad putting his pot of morning tea on the stove.
The rink has the public entrance in front, with our apartment attached in the back. There is also a string of six cabins behind the rink for resident skaters in training. But that was back in the glory days of the Ice Castle. The glory days of my father actually. Before his cover-of-People-esque fall from grace. Now the cabins are vacation rentals to bring in some extra money.
I moved closer to the oversized heating vent in my room. It was directly across from the one in the kitchen, so any conversation was as clear as if I was in the room with them. I’d grown up falling asleep listening to the sound of conversations in the kitchen, although usually the “conversations” were just my dad watching TV. He barely had more visitors than I did. Sad considering I had none.
ROBBIE: “Davey! Davey!”
Still with the double naming, although no one called Dad “Davey” but Uncle Robbie. Dad’s status as a coach, even now, got him full use of his fancy triple play: David Cole Wilder. Just one of those semi-show biz things of the skating world that he had once been such a part of.
DAD: “Robbie, what’s up with you? You look like you’re ten years old and it’s Christmas morning.”
I could hear the amusement in his voice at Uncle Robbie’s uncharacteristic excitement.
ROBBIE: “It’s Juliette! She’s recanting! She’s recanting!”
I didn’t realize my legs had given away until I found myself sitting on the floor.
Juliette Francine’s name was not a welcome one in our home. Dad had been her coach sixteen years ago, back when my mom was pregnant with me. Juliette was seventeen, a French phenom who’d just won the European Championships and was a favorite to medal in the Olympics. She’d lived here at the Ice Castle, back when it was called the campus. The pictures of those glory days were still on the walls.
Thirteen Olympic medals represented by those photographs: five gold, three silver and five bronze. Three of those golds my father’s. As a coach anyway. The rink must have been so cool back then, like a tiny college for elite skaters from all over the world. My parents owned the rink, and Dad was the most famous of the resident coaches. The rink was not even open to the public. It was dedicated solely to training high-level skaters.
But it had all ended sixteen years ago, the Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. Dad and Juliette, both front and center media stars in different ways. Dad, only thirty-eight years old, crazy young for a top coach, and with rock star good looks and an ego to match. And Juliette, his newest star, a Guess model on skates.
It took only thirty seconds for both their worlds to end.
Anticipation had been high. Ladies figure skating is the signature event of every Winter Olympics, and Juliette had been its poster child. She had it all.
Juliette was one of the favorites to win the gold, with anticipated tens of millions in endorsement dollars awaiting her on the other side. Smile and sell the world soap, face lotion and tampons.
The beginning of the end was just ten seconds into her long program. She was already in first place by the narrowest of margins after the short. Skate a clean program and the gold was hers.
She fell on her first jump, a simple triple toe loop. A jump she—any elite skater—could do in their sleep. Then she caught an edge and fell again on a flying sit spin. When she got up the panic was in her eyes. A deer in headlights. Any chance at the gold was gone. Epic fail. She and everyone knew it. But still an outside chance at a medal.
Silver or bronze.
And then she fell a third time, going down hard and hitting the back of her head, the ice like cement. A sick sound like a stick breaking, echoing through the arena. And she didn’t get up. She laid there, lifeless.
At least that’s the way it looked. I’ve seen the video hundreds of times. I torture myself with it. Hating her for not dying. There’d been screams from the crowd followed by absolute silence. They carried her off the ice on a stretcher, my dad at her side, distraught, touchingly pressing his forehead to hers as if transferring life. His lips an inch from hers, speaking silent words. That was the photo that found its way onto every front page and news story around the world.
Juliette, even more famous.
My dad, as it turned out, infamous.
Her press conference was given from her hospital bed two days later—yeah, that’s on YouTube too. Concussion, neck brace, the whole dog-and-pony show. But it wasn’t the sympathetic puff piece from an adoring press she’d been anticipating. The sympathy was still there, but some questions were being asked by the media. Forcefully. Rumors were swirling of her sneaking out for some late-night partying the night before the long program. Not dedicating herself to her sport and her country. She’d been France’s best chance at a gold and they wanted answers.
But the hard questions ended when she burst into tears and haltingly, gasping for air, begged for them to leave her alone. She said she could not hide the truth any longer.
Her truth anyway.
She claimed she’d been in a sexual relationship with my father for months leading up to the Olympics, and she’d felt powerless to say no. Worse, she feared she might be pregnant. It was a wonder she could skate at all, but she had to try for her country. So she said anyway. Poor, poor Juliette.
It turned out there was no pregnancy, but proving there had been no affair was impossible.
Skating may look beautiful on the ice, but behind the scenes it can be a brutal, take-no-prisoners world. My dad had told me he’d met the best people of his life in skating, but there was another side too—filled with jealous coaches, maniac parents and prima donna skaters. Dad’s fast success—the first ever to coach both the ladies’ singles and pairs to gold in the same Olympics—made him a target. Others could only rise with his fall, so the skating world’s silence in his support was deafening.
So maybe no surprise that no one heard any words but those from Juliette. She was an adorable and can’t-hide-it-even-if-she-tried sexy girl with tears in her eyes, and Dad was a man whose bedroom had been one wall from hers for years of training. No cabin for Juliette. She shared the rink apartment with Dad and Gloria. She had what’s now my room in fact.
Maybe making it worse was the world’s knowledge that Gloria was pregnant (me), and she was virtually a slightly older clone of Juliette. Both skaters, beautiful and young. So it was easy for the world to imagine Dad’s taste ran to the type, and what a sexy story for the normally staid Olympics. Sex triangle on ice!
So Dad was finished. The cover story photograph, initially seen as incredibly touching and sweet, was then seen as evidence of his lechery. No real evidence, so no trial, but abandoned by the skating world. His once famous Ice Castle became a public rink, and his coaching became just local kids with big aspirations and little talent. The locals of Lake Arrowhead knew Dad, so knew the story had to be bogus, so at least we still had a community to support the rink, but little else. The only winner was me, coming along just months later: Every bit of Dad’s skating passion dedicated solely to me.
The world’s best skating coach since I was a toddler.
My mind snapped back to the conversation in the next room as I heard the sound of a coffee cup hit the counter. Hard. Like the arm holding it could no longer support it. My dad’s I’m sure.
DAD: “What are you saying, Robbie?”
His voice had become quiet and I had to put my ear right to the vent. There was hope in his words.
DAD: “Did . . . did she call you? Juliette?”
Uncle Robbie was a lawyer and handled business for Dad, not that there was much of it anymore.
ROBBIE: “That little coward? No. Someone from a book publisher called me, one of the big ones. From New York City. An editor named . . . oh, never mind . . . someone called me. She’s written a book—“
ROBBIE: “Yes, yes! Juliette! Just listen! There’s a book coming out. About her life. Skating and . . . up to now . . . her life. She’s admitting she made the whole thing up! The truth is finally coming out, Davey. That you did nothing wrong!”
There was silence as my dad absorbed what he was hearing. I could hear the bewilderment in his voice when he finally spoke.
DAD: “Why? Why did she do it?”
A snort from Uncle Robbie.
ROBBIE: “Who cares? Maybe she found Jesus. Or maybe she just wants to sell books. You’ve got to have something juicy if you want to get on some talk shows, get a bestseller, be famous again.”
DAD: “No, I meant, why did she do it back then? Why did she lie?”
ROBBIE: “Who knows? The lady who called me promised to FedEx an advance copy for you today. And it’s going out to all the media too. I guess to get a little buzz going. Then the book is released next week. The short version I got on the phone was Juliette’s life was a mess, and she just fell apart. You were her scapegoat.”
After her failure at the Olympics, Juliette never skated again, not with any success anyway. Her story was a sad one. She remained a celebrity of sorts, like all the other damaged ones who never seemed to go away. There had been drugs. Alcohol. Arrests for abusing both. But she was still beautiful and sexy and a figure of sympathy. Particularly in Europe, she was a guaranteed headline, usually spotted with a race car driver or somebody super rich. She’d become a dating accessory, a taste of the month, then discarded.
And then Uncle Robbie said out loud what had just occurred to me.
Don’t say the words. Saying them out loud would make them reality. But he said them anyway.
ROBBIE: “You know what this means don’t you, Davey? You’re back! You are going to be back in business!”
They’d be calling.
All of them.
The skaters. The parents. The coaches. The sponsors. The media.
All those people in Dad’s old life would be back. Or at least the new crop of them sixteen years later. Their excuse to hate him was gone. The prince was back. And I knew my private world was gone.
I wore my mask to practice that afternoon. I’d found it when I was six and exploring one of the rink’s many storage rooms. Discarded skating costumes, old equipment, and the mask. It was nothing but a smooth hard shell with holes for eyes, nostrils and mouth. White with black accents, it looked nothing like a real face. More like Japanese art, a kabuki mask.
Before the mask, I’d just stay in my room when the rink had its public hours, but I wanted every minute on the ice. So one day without even telling my dad, I was out there, the mask a little too big for my face but the pretty pink ribbons from each side tied securely behind my head, weaving between the Saturday night skaters whose only goal was to keep their ankles straight and not fall down, a couple brave souls skating backwards.
I don’t know what they made of me, the little girl skating like a demon, kamikaze maneuvers around the skaters, tossing in singles and doubles when I’d find a clear patch of ice. I had been so focused that I hadn’t even noticed when the ice had emptied, all the skaters having moved to the sides to watch me. But when I finished center ice with a scratch spin, I heard them. Their applause. Loud and long. I even bowed. One of the coolest moments of my life. Actually, the best moment of my life.
Until the mask fell off.
Maybe I didn’t want the applause to end, or I just wanted to show off, but on my way off the ice I tossed in a double Lutz. But not enough speed, caught an edge and went down hard. The mask skidded away, leaving me
Every eye fixed on me. Mouths opened in horror, Edvard Munch’s The Scream times fifty. At least, that’s how I remember the faces in the crowd.
The mask ten miles away and hours to get to it.
My hair tied back, not hiding my face, even though my little hands tried.
One child crying in fright and confusion at the sight of me. Then two. A collective intake of breath that practically took the air out of the rink. No ears. No nose. Just holes in distorted flesh. An arena so filled with pity that even at age six I knew revulsion was preferable. So what did I learn that day?
How to tie a freaking knot, that’s what!
So Dad understood the mask. But I’d never worn it when it was just us. Not ever. There was no public to hide from. But on that day it wouldn’t be my face I was hiding. It was the emotions it would show.
I’d never lied to my father.
But today was going to be the day.
I loved him too much not to lie.
It had been only a minute after Uncle Robbie left that Dad was knocking on my door. Even his knocks radiated his joy. I knew he’d be bursting to share the news with me.
Maybe nerdy shrinks would label it as unhealthy codependence, easy to happen when you are both outcasts, and skating is a shared addiction. But I couldn’t be his daughter or his friend at that moment, and I let his knocks go unanswered. I made it to my bed just in time to look like I’d gone back to bed as he opened the door. Then felt shame as he whispered my name, so clearly hoping I was awake. But I kept up the sleep act.
With a whispered, “Love you, sleep well,” he closed the door, leaving me with my shame.
And my thoughts.
Because it hadn’t taken me long to realize that I’d been wrong earlier that morning. Yeah, my dad’s life was going to change. There were less than a dozen elite skating coaches in the world and my dad would take his place there again. Even after an absence of sixteen years and three Olympics, that kind of talent was never forgotten, especially after what they’d now see as his unfair ouster. And I knew one thing no one else did—that he’d never stopped coaching. He’d just been coaching only me.
So the skating world would be waiting with its arms open, and an apology for his wrongful banishment.
But only if he let them.
And he wouldn’t.
I knew his mind, and his heart, better than he did. He’d celebrate the news for a while, then tell Uncle Robbie to turn the inquiries away. He’d imagine leaving for weeks at a time for major competitions with me left alone, or only Uncle Robbie to watch me. He’d imagine skaters living at the campus again, and worry about me learning to interact with them 24/7. No privacy to take off my mask. He’d imagine me locking myself in my room each day, becoming the lost girl he’d worked so hard to never let me become.
So Juliette may have freed him, but he still had a jailer.
My face might be hideously scarred, but that didn’t mean it didn’t show emotion, and no one could read me like my dad. So when I went out for my eleven o’clock session, I had the mask on before I even left my room. Dad already had his skates on and had been warming up on the ice. As he skated up to me I could literally see the question forming on his lips: Why are you wearing the mask?
But then Parenting101 kicked in and the wisdom of silence took over. Clearly he thought it better to say nothing than the wrong thing. The poor guy. Tucked away somewhere in his room was probably a Guide to Single-Parenting a Teenage Daughter. What he needed was Parenting a Teenage Daughter Without a Face, but I don’t think Amazon or Barnes & Noble stocked that.
So instead he started with, “Uncle Robbie came by this morning.” And then he excitedly told me what I already knew.
There was no need to fake a look of surprise with the mask, so I put it into my voice. “Dad!” I ran the few steps between us and gave him a hug. “I’m so happy for you.”
His infectious grin flashed. “It’s amazing, isn’t it? I . . . I don’t even know what to think yet.”
“Dad, what’s to think about? They’re going to be begging you to coach again. It’s going to be fantastic!” Lie #1 (about the fantastic part anyway).
Even through the mask I could feel my dad’s eyes probing mine, searching for truth. I had to be careful not to oversell it. I sat down to lace up my skates and gave him my profile so he couldn’t see the lie in my eyes. I said, “It’s going to be so exciting to have some of the best skaters in the world here again, like in the old days.” Lie #2. Then sealing it excitedly with, “Dad, don’t you know how many times I’ve looked at the pictures on the walls and wished I’d been alive back when all the top skaters were here? To be a part of that?” Lie #3 (actually some truth in that one).
He stepped off the ice, pausing just to put the guards on his skates, and sat down next to me to get at eye level. His face was doubting, wordlessly asking, really?
The fact was that I’d quashed his every effort for me to interact with people since I could remember, so this sudden turnaround wasn’t ringing true to him. But he didn’t go there. Instead he said, “Well, honey, I don’t even know if I want to coach again, or if they’ll want me. That’s way down the road. I’m just so glad to have . . . you know, all the other stuff gone.”
I felt a rush of shame. The biggest news for him had nothing to do with coaching again, which was all I was thinking about. I could only imagine what it had been like to live with the accusation hanging over his head that he’d slept with Juliette, and worse, someone he’d been trusted to care for as her coach. If he’d had one wish to grant him anything in the world, he’d use it on me having a normal life. But right behind that—he’d gotten his wish: his name was cleared. I should be celebrating this with him, not hiding behind a mask.
I finally turned to face him. “Dad, what do you mean if they want you? Your skaters have won three gold medals! Stop being so modest.” I leaned my shoulder into his and gave him a bump. “Don’t you want other skaters here too, Dad? Don’t you want to coach someone besides me? Someone the world can see? Someone who can compete? And win?” In other words, someone besides me who we both knew would never leave the rink.
He just stared at me with that sweet face I knew so well, and then as if in slow motion I saw his eyes moisten, then overflow, as ignored tears ran down his face. He gently cupped his hands around my face. “Oh, honey, is that what you think? That I’ve been missing something? Do you have any idea how much I’ve loved teaching you to skate? You’re not just my daughter, you’re the best and the hardest working skater I’ve ever coached. You’re my life, Katie. I don’t need anything else. Anyone else.”
Okay, now time for my tears to come. I locked my arms around him. My God, we were living in a Hallmark Channel movie. We just needed an off-screen orchestra for some sappy music. We were linked not just by skating and family blood, but by the accident that destroyed me—or created me. A life changed at age three. I guess it depends on if you see a glass half-empty or half-full.
Dad couldn’t have avoided the pick-up that hit us. The drums of gasoline it was carrying sent a spray of fuel across my face—like nectar for the fire that followed. He was knocked unconscious, leaving me a prisoner in my car seat in the back when the car erupted in flames. We’d been sledding just a couple miles from home and were headed back, soaked and shivering but laughing. They say our wet winter clothes saved us—but that was no help for a face wet with gasoline. The burns to my body were minor by comparison, as were Dad’s. The only reason I still have eyes is that evidently I covered them up with my wet gloves.
I hugged him so tight I think I might have actually hurt him. Here he was, giving me an out, despite the Oscar-caliber lies I’d just delivered. All I had to do was say, “Okay,” and keep things just like they were. Just one word from me, and our lives would continue as they were. Just him and me. And skating. Just one little word. But that’s not the word I said.
I stood up and pulled the guards off my skates. “No.”
He stood up alongside me and I could see the surprise on his face. I don’t even know if I was lying anymore. “Dad, you’ve got to coach again.” And I didn’t plan to say it, but the words tumbling after were, “And I need to grow up.”
God, where did that come from?
But before I could change my mind, or let him change it for me, I said, “Protopopovs, 1965 Worlds.”
Dad had converted old TV and film footage to DVDs so we could study all the great skaters, and we had memorized more than twenty programs, some of them going back even before my dad was born. Oleg Protopopov and his wife, Ludmila Belousova, were one of Russia’s greatest pairs skaters, winning gold in two Olympics and four straight World Championships. Unique for their grace and interpretation to their music, they were one of my favorites.
Every day my dad and I would take a break from training and choose a famous pairs program to skate—old school stuff, before fancy overhead lifts and twists. It was my favorite part of every day. Dad was still an excellent skater and incredibly strong, still able to throw me high enough to turn a triple. And as much as I loved skating alone, there was something special about pairs, especially with my dad. Most girls just get their wedding dance with their father. I’d never have that, but what I had was better.
And so after I did my warm-up, we skated. But for the first time ever, my thoughts were elsewhere. What had allowed me to lie so convincingly, first to him then to myself, was that I knew nothing would change immediately. The National Championships were just four months away, with the Olympics another month after that, quickly followed by the Worlds. Top skaters rarely change coaches, and if they do it’s usually right after the season ends, so that meant nothing would change for at least four or five months. That’s when Olympic expectations for so many would be unfulfilled, coaches blamed, and changes made.
So for now, I could convince myself
But I was wrong.
I didn’t know it then, but Dad’s new skaters would arrive only six days later.
That night I had my dream. The same dream I had every night. The dream that feels like reality when I wake up, and I briefly struggle to leave the dream world and enter the real one.
It starts with me walking alone in a busy shopping mall. I’m holding several shopping bags in each hand. They are all empty and I carry them only so I can try to blend in. But it doesn’t work. Everyone is staring at me. At my face. I have no mask. Most people quickly turn away. Some fall to their knees and retch. Some shout not just cruel words but hateful obscenities. The children mimic their parents and do the same. When I pass a sporting goods store, men rush out with baseball bats and golf clubs and start to attack me as the people around us begin to cheer. The attack is well planned. Their first blows are to my legs and I fall to the ground, but my only thought is that I will never skate again. Several of the men are shouting, “Kill it! Kill it!” as they now aim their blows at my face and head. I realize I am not a her to them.
I can see the joy in their eyes as they try to obliterate me from the earth. They are so excited that spit flies from their mouths. “Kill it, kill it,” becomes a chant taken up by the gathering crowd.
Then the ceiling of the mall melts away and a spaceship blocks the sun. A beam of light shoots down and envelops me, and my attackers fall away. Slowly I rise into the air until finally I’m inside the ship. The aliens are about my size, but I can’t see their faces, hidden by their space suits. No one says anything to me, but they are kind. One of them approaches me and puts a gentle hand to my heart, and my injuries from the attack melt away. I’m not aware of how long the journey takes, but finally through the window of the spaceship I can see our destination planet ahead. When we land a ladder descends and we all exit the ship. People from the planet gather around me and the crew of the spaceship takes off their spacesuits.
Everyone looks exactly like me.
Wherever I look, I see my own face, or one almost exactly like it, smiling back at me. I realize that I’d simply been born on the wrong planet, and it was here I was meant to be. It took fifteen years, but God found a way to fix His mistake. I can see in the faces around me that they think I’m the prettiest girl on the planet and everyone wants to be my friend.
But I always wake up.
Dad woke me up with breakfast in bed. Parents—they can be so transparent—bless their little hearts. First off, maybe I’m missing something, but what’s the big deal? It’s breakfast, but you have to eat it in bed, which let’s face it, is pretty awkward. Hard to sit up straight. Your legs are uncomfortable trying to balance the tray. Crumbs are falling everywhere that you know will find their way against your skin at night and wake you up. The only good thing about it is that someone made breakfast for you. Dad making me breakfast at table sounded better.
But the worst thing about breakfast in bed was that I knew it meant I was getting a Talk. I wasn’t sure what the topic would be, but a Talk was clearly on the agenda, and they were
Prior Talk subjects, in order, had been:
1. There really is no Santa (which I sort of already knew, but damn was I pissed off when I realized that also meant there was no Easter bunny).
2. Mom’s not coming back.
3. Mr. Beavers, our rescue from the pound who’d become my best friend, had died in his sleep.
4. I would soon be having my first period.
And worse than discussing your upcoming first menstrual cycle with your dad is when that topic segues into the birds and the bees. Not that he did a bad job of it, but it was so humiliating to know it was information we both knew I didn’t need to have. I probably overthought the whole thing—what else is new—but I could imagine my dad’s agony on which would be the lesser insult. Let’s face it, he was likely the only dad in California who didn’t have to worry about his teenage daughter getting pregnant. So does he give the obligatory parental “where babies come from/abstain/but if you don’t abstain use a condom” lecture to someone who will never have sex? Or does he never say anything, basically saying, you are so butt ugly there’s no need to worry about the boy issue. No win for him. No win for me.
The bottom line was, whatever the topic, Talks sucked. Big time.
But one of the mandatory rules of being a child is to protect your parents’ feelings, so I let the B.I.B. gushing begin with, “Oh, goody! Cereal! And a smoothie! Breakfast in bed! Wow, thanks, Dad.”
Like I hadn’t seen those same things since breakfast yesterday.
He sat down on the edge of the bed. “So,” he said. “About that nap yesterday morning . . .”
I knew pretending to have gone back to bed to avoid talking to him yesterday was lame. Now I was going to pay for it.
He said, “So, since when do you take a nap right after your morning skate? At eight-thirty in the morning? Then wear your mask at practice?”
Jeez. He was like a lawyer in one of those TV crime shows, laying down the evidence. Gently, but piling on. I wasn’t ready to cop to anything so went with chewing. Chewing really well. No fear of choking going on here.
“Yum, Dad. Really good bran flakes.”
But he wasn’t going to be distracted by my perfect mastication. He said, “I’m guessing you overheard me talking to Uncle Robbie. You knew before I told you. Right?”
Damn, the guy was psychic. And oddly, smiling a little. I was glad he found the whole thing amusing. He grabbed one of my extra pillows and flopped down next to me, putting his head by my feet so he could face me. His way of saying he wasn’t going anywhere until we’d talked it out. Unlike yesterday, there was no mask to hide behind, clearly part of his dastardly evil plan with the early morning surprise attack.
Well, when you’re busted, you’re busted.
“You’re right,” I finally said. “I heard Uncle Robbie when he came over. But I didn’t know what to say, so I pretended to be asleep. Then I acted like I didn’t know. It was stupid. I’m sorry . . . I didn’t mean to be fake about it.”
He smiled. “So that whole ‘Dad, get some skaters here,’ was what? You said that because you think I want that?”
What I really wanted was to delay this conversation. Like maybe until next year. I suddenly didn’t feel as brave as yesterday.
“Dad, can we talk about this later? I really want to enjoy this nice breakfast in bed. I don’t want my cereal to get soggy.”
He gave a little laugh. “Like you care. I could see the look on your face the minute you saw the breakfast tray. You knew something was up.”
Damn! Sometimes parents are smarter than you give them credit for. When I didn’t say anything he said, “Honey, just tell me what you feel. Please. You’re my life. You know that. I know things changed in the outside world yesterday. But that doesn’t mean anything has to change for us. Forget whatever you said yesterday. Let’s start all over, okay?”
That’s my dad. The best.
But I didn’t know how to answer. I wanted to masterfully deliver the best lie ever, convincing him I wanted him to coach again. He deserved that. But part of me wanted to say, You and me alone forever, Daddy, hiding away in our rink in the mountains. Complicating it all was trying to figure out who put those words into my mouth yesterday: And I need to grow up.
BRAIN TO HEART: Dad’s been trapped here with you for fifteen years. This is his chance to escape and have a life.
HEART TO BRAIN: Dad loves you. He spends time with you because he wants to be with you. Skating with you. Nothing needs to change. You’ve created a world where no one can hurt either one of you ever again.
BRAIN TO HEART: Get real. Change happens. Kids have to grow up. He will leave eventually. Or do you want him to stay with you until one of you dies?
I made myself say, “I meant what I said yesterday. I really do want you to coach again. If you want to, I mean. You do want to . . . don’t you, Dad?”
There, the burden was on him. Then I gave his own words back at him. “So you just tell me what you feel.”
He took even longer to answer than I had. I watched his eyes as they took in all the posters on my walls, all my favorite skaters from past greats to up-and-comers for the Olympic Games in Beijing. He sounded almost wistful as his eyes stuck on the one of Petra Gorbinova, his first Olympic gold medalist, caught in the air in a Russian split, the line of her legs couldn’t be straighter if you used a protractor.
He said, “You don’t know how many times I’ve asked myself that in the last twenty-four hours.”
Up to this point I’d been wondering why he seemed kind of subdued, yesterday’s joy already faded. But something clicked when he said, twenty-four hours. Why were we having this conversation so soon? Why not next week? Next month? The answer hit me like a blow to the stomach.
“Dad? You’ve already got a skater, don’t you.”
Two skaters as it turned out.
He pulled his eyes off the poster. “I don’t have anyone. But I did get a call last night from U.S. Figure Skating. And I have to . . . we have to, make a quick decision. I was just going to just say no, but I thought I should talk about it with you first.”
U.S. Figure Skating is the governing body that runs the sport with a velvet-covered iron fist, everything from approving judges to selecting who would be on the Olympic team. But I didn’t want to talk about the USFS. I wanted to know the skater. I couldn’t imagine it would be anyone major with Nationals just months away. But then why would there be a rush if it wasn’t somebody big?
“Who, Dad? Who’s the skater?”
He pointed at one of my newest posters. “Piece of Cake,” he said.
It took me a few seconds to realize he was serious. Piece of Cake! It was like casually saying Taylor Swift and Justin Timberlake were dropping by for lunch. For a minute I was a normal fifteen-year-old girl and had to remind myself to breathe.
“You’ve got to be kidding me! Piezov and Cake? Dad, are you serious? Are you serious? They want you?”
He gave me mock insulted. “Hey, I’m not good enough? What happened to, You’re a great coach, Dad.”
Alexander Piezov and Melissa Cake (Lissy to her friends according to Skating magazine) were the hottest figures pair in the country. Pairs skaters are always referred to by their last names, and during the TV coverage of last year’s Nationals, retired skating greats Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski playfully tweaked Piezov-Cake into Piece of Cake. The name stuck. And it was accurate. They did make everything on the ice look easy.
Alex and Lissy (so, yeah, as a fellow skater I’m putting myself in the friend category) quickly made the transition from good to great. Two years ago at the Nationals they finished fourth, but just a year later they took the gold, then followed that up against the best on the planet with a bronze medal in the World Championships in Stockholm. That made them big names in the skating world, favorites for gold again at the upcoming Nationals and solid medal contenders for the Olympics. Still, that wouldn’t normally be enough to put them into the public consciousness, at least not until the Olympics actually began and hundreds of millions of Americans began their every-four-year love affair with it.
That was, until The Kiss. They had just completed their long program at Nationals and had skated the performance of their lives. As Alex held Lissy in their finishing position and the crowd cheered, he slowly lowered his lips to hers and delivered the most gentle kiss ever recorded on film. And after a brief moment, she raised her face to his to deliver a kiss just as gentle and sweet. No gross tongue swapping, just the most perfect first kiss any boy had ever given a girl, and vice versa. Even ESPN’s SportsCenter, which doesn’t exactly fall over itself to cover figure skating, made it one of their lead stories. Just months ago, both Pepsi and NBC included Alex and Lissy in their pre-Olympic mashup commercials. The Games were still five months away, but NBC wanted you looking forward to watching it, preferably while drinking Pepsi.
Being great skaters in one of the Olympics’ premier glamor sports had something to do with their highlights being included with the best U.S. downhill racers, bobsledders and hockey players, but being gorgeous, charming, kissable teenagers didn’t hurt either. So Piece of Cake was already becoming a household name, months before their first Olympics even began.
A lot of pressure on them.
And on my dad, if he took the job.
“Dad, you’re serious! What’s going on? Why do they need a new coach?”
And I didn’t say it, but I admit I was thinking, and why you? I knew their coach was Nick Prado. He was one of the oldest and most respected coaches around. He was so nice (and old) that his nickname was Old Saint Nick. He’d been with Piezov and Cake for years and had brought them together as a pair eight years ago when they were only ten.
“Nick had a heart attack a couple of days ago. It looks like he’s going to be okay, but he’s going to be on bed rest for a long time, and they say his coaching days are over. I guess he was struggling even before this.”
Not only had Nick been Dad's coach back when was a skater, but also his mentor as he segued into coaching. And I knew Nick Prado had been one of the few people in skating who’d stayed in touch with Dad over the years of his exile.
Dad went on, “And to answer your why me question, Nick recommended I take over. We’ve always had the same philosophy. And let’s face it, all the other established coaches have full rosters and would be trying to squeeze them in. So nobody ends up happy, them or the other skaters.”
“But they train in Lake Placid, don’t they? Would we . . . you . . . go there to coach?”
He shook his head. “No. I said I wouldn’t even consider it unless they trained here.” He held up his hands in a stopping motion. “But Katie, you’re getting way ahead of things. For one thing, getting a call about possibly coaching them is a long way from actually being chosen to do it. And that’s even if we decide I should do it. So can we first talk about if we even wantto do this? And so soon?”
He said we, but what he really meant was if I was ready.
The truth was, I wasn’t going to be able to put one over on my dad, even for his own good. I decided I had nothing to lose by being completely honest. That’s the way it had always been between us anyway.
“Well,” I pointed out, “You still haven’t told me what you feel. But okay, I’ll go first.”
I took a deep breath. “The truth is I was kind of lying yesterday. I was terrified about the idea of people coming to live with us . . . What it’d do to my life. No more privacy. Not as much skating. But mainly just the scared part. Just,” I pointed to my face, “dealing with this.”
Dad started to speak. “I understand. I’ll just tell them—”
“No, please, Dad. Let me finish. I know you’ve always tried to get me to be around other people. And . . .”
I had to pause to think about how to say what needed to be said. The reality was that I’d rejected every effort my dad had made to mainstream me. First it was trying to get me to go to kindergarten. Epic fail. And again years later for third grade. He’d found a small charter school with a lot of nice “special” kids. My word, not his. But both times something between a panic attack and a tantrum hit me before we got to the car. I remember a band tightening around my chest: gasping for air and literally falling to the ground. Then when I recovered enough to breathe—kicking and screaming, my sobs surely piercing his heart.
Other times he’d tried to get me to help teach his beginner skating classes. I said “no” to his every overture. My only interaction with “the world” was masked, helping with the cabin rentals and flying around the rink during the public skating sessions on Friday and Saturday nights. Maybe that’s one reason I skate incredibly fast for a figure skater. If I’m a blur then no one can focus on the sides of my face that the mask doesn’t cover. Ropey, corded flesh, a lesser version of the horror that is my face.
When I did the public skates, no one ever spoke to me. I sometimes wondered if they had some weird legend about me around our little mountain town. She skates so well because she is a mutant. She eats small children. At night she flies over the lake on her broomstick. Don’t look her in the eyes or she will steal your soul. But small towns keep their own secrets, and so far no one has come up the mountain to learn about the mystery girl in the mask who can do triple after triple.
The bottom line was my exile was self-imposed. And maybe the reason my dad didn’t push harder to get me into the outside world was that he could see I was genuinely happy. Every minute of my days was filled with skating, exercising, studying other skaters, and exploring the world via the Internet. Oh, and Netflix. So compared to other teenagers, I wasn’t all that screwed up. The only interaction with the world that I welcomed was through the safety of the phone, handling calls to the rink and about cabin rentals. I actually enjoyed that.
“It’s time, Dad. I’ve always fought you on it, but I know it’s time for both of us. You should be coaching and I should be . . . um, expanding my life a little.”
It would sound too pitiful to say out loud to my dad, but what I really hoped for was to make a friend. Just one. Maybe not soon, but someday. To me, a friend seemed like both the most remarkable, and impossible, thing to obtain. I’d see friendships in movies and wonder how it happened in real life. To have someone who wasn’t your family like you enough to want to hang out with you. To just talk about nothing. To share fears and secrets and dreams with. I just didn’t understand how someone took the first step to making a friend. And if I ever learned that first step, I wondered if anyone would accept that offer of friendship, especially people like Alex and Lissy who were skating celebrities.
Dad was looking prouder than when I landed my first triple Salchow.
I said, “Okay, your turn. Be honest. What do you want to do?”
“Okay,” he said. “My truth is I’d like to coach again. Part of me is a little nervous though.”
“Katie, being away sixteen years is a long time. Think about it. I missed fifteen National Championships, sixteen Worlds, and three Olympics. I know I’ve been coaching you, and some locals, but it’s going to feel strange doing it at that level again. And what if Alex and Melissa are thinking the same thing? If they don’t have complete confidence in me, it’s going to make it hard to get the most out of them.”
Wow. It never occurred to me my dad could feel any anxiety about anything. That’s my job.
“Don’t doubt yourself, Dad. Look what you did for me. I’m incredible.”
I couldn’t keep from laughing, but the fact was he’d single-handedly turned me into a great skater. I took a big slurp of my smoothie I’d been ignoring. “So what’s next? How do we get them here?” I was already imagining being able to have a private ringside seat to watch them train, and see my dad coaching them. I'd deal with the fear later.
He said, “It was Barbara Felsdorf who called me. She wants to come out tomorrow and talk about it. I told her I’d need to get back to her.”
Barbara Felsdorf was a big name in skating, U.S. Figure Skating’s Director of Athlete High Performance, just one of a million facts in my skating-OCD mind. The fact it was her calling Dad seemed to indicate how serious they were looking at him. More than he was admitting to himself.
“Isn’t she based in Colorado? Why is she coming in person?”
“She won’t come out and say it, but she’s basically the advance man—woman—to check everything out and see if the place still measures up. She’ll want to make sure the ice is good, check out the rink facilities, the housing arrangements . . . Is it all still suitable for elite skaters? She hasn’t been here for what, sixteen years? And she hasn’t seen me in about as long. A lot can change.”
I said, “Well, I know one thing. We’ve got great ice.”
He held out his knuckles for me to bump. “Damn right we do.”
I’d learned from my father that ice is a living, breathing thing. Most people think you put a couple inches of water in a rink and wait for the pipes in the cement underneath to freeze it, then cut it smooth with the Zamboni. But taking care of a top-level ice rink is like being the groundskeeper of a major league baseball team, constantly tinkering to keep everything perfect.
Great ice starts with using special purified and mineral-free water that has to be trucked in, added one-sixteenth of an inch at a time until it is eventually two inches thick, deep enough for our toe picks to get good penetration. Then there’s the temperature, which determines the speed of the ice. Keeping the ice at 19 degrees would be great for hockey. Fast ice. But figure skaters want slower, softer ice for better traction and control, closer to 24 degrees. The humidity and temperature of the air inside the rink plays a huge role too, so built into the ceiling we had humidifiers and vents that could open and close, keeping the rink at sixty degrees with ideal humidity.
You do not want to see our electric bill.
Like I said, it’s complicated, and it took a lot of my dad’s time. In his glory days he had someone to do a lot of those jobs but now everything was divided up between the two of us. Even though the Lake Arrowhead locals wouldn’t know if the ice was second rate, Dad kept the rink at the same level as when it was a training ground for the world’s best skaters. For me.
“Will she want to meet me too?” I asked. In other words, will she think her skaters would get freaked out by some geek in a mask hanging around all the time? Was I going to ruin this chance for my dad?
“I’m sure she’d like to meet you. Don’t you want to meet her? You could set her straight on how to run U.S. Figure Skating.”
I was always pestering my dad with questions about why certain changes in the scoring system weren’t made, like bigger mandatory deductions for falls, and why some technical elements were required in a short program but not others . . . I could go on forever about how to make figure skating an even better sport.
“Funny, Dad. You crack me up. Ha ha.”
“Anyway, so Barbara will make a decision and either recommend me to Alex and Melissa . . . or not. And if she does, I’d guess I’d Skype with them first, and if that goes well, have them come out for a couple days and we'd all see how it goes.”
“So . . . so they could be here in just a few days?”
He gave me a long look. “We haven’t even decided if I tell Barbara she can come tomorrow. But if she came out and things went well, then yeah, it could be just a few days. Are you ready for that?”
I nodded. “Tell her to come. I’m ready, Dad.”
Ready as in somewhere between completely terrified, and unspeakably excited. I tried to imagine what it would be like to sit with Alex Piezov and Melissa Cake, discussing Salchows and Axels and footwork technique and edges and a million other things. Would they even want to talk to some fifteen-year-old girl in a mask? Would they let me do some drills with them? And if they did, would I skate like one of the best skaters in the world that I knew I was, or would I crash and burn under the pressure as so many skaters did when it mattered the most?
“Good,” he said. “Because I have a job for you. Barbara sent me over tons of video on them, everything from the last two years and practice footage of their new programs for this season, so I have a lot of work to do. I’ve got my Penguins Level One at two today. How about I introduce you and you take over? There should be five kids. The youngest is five and the oldest I think is seven. We’re just starting to work on crossovers. What do you think?”
What I thought was my dad was being pretty smart (well, other than labelling his kids’ beginner group Penguins, which I’d told him was dorky). I’m sure he did have plenty to do, but what he was really doing was giving me a chance to see if I could do what I said I could: interact face-to-face. Mask-to-face anyway. But he wasn’t going to say it like that. If I couldn’t handle a few kids, how was I going to handle meeting the woman who oversaw Team U.S.A., and later, skating phenoms like Alex Piezov and Melissa Cake.
“Piece of cake, Dad,” I said. I know, totally lame. But I said it anyway. “I’ll be there at two.”
I had eight hours before my Penguins teaching debut, one advantage of starting every day before the sun came up. My goal every morning was to be in the rink by six a.m. I only need fifteen minutes of bathroom/get dressed time, so my alarm was always set for 5:45. Dad had arrived with my breakfast in bed even earlier than that, so even after we’d talked, I was still on schedule.
I never got over the joy of walking through the door from our hallway and right into the rink. I’d think of all the dedicated skaters around the world who love skating as much as I do, who have to drive hours a day for their ice time. For me, it’s my living room.
The sun wouldn’t come up for another half hour, so I threw the bank of switches that lit the rink. Hanging from the rafters high above the ice were banners announcing the Olympic, World and National Championships won by Ice Castle skaters, and on the far wall rising up to the ceiling were flags of all the nations represented by those who’d trained here.
I made a quick stop at the skate-rental counter where the sound system controls were. Today I was feeling my Ariana-Selena-Miley mix. Sometimes I liked to crank the music loud and get lost in it, but for my morning session I always kept it pretty quiet. I grabbed the jump rope and did an easy two minutes as a pre-stretch warm-up.
My dad was big into stretching and flexibility, so the next fifteen minutes were spent on the stretch mat. It was a mix of traditional stretches and yoga. I repeat it after each session on the ice too. I do at least three sessions a day, so that’s an hour and a half a day I spend stretching. To say the least, my dad is pretty unconventional. I’ve never worked with any type of fancy exercise machine, used weights, or done any water workouts—none of the things I read about today’s skaters doing. We worked my leg and trunk muscles hard, but it was all with isometrics, resistance bands and a medicine ball. And I’ve never been seriously injured—not once—despite skating more than even any of the top competitive skaters do. I average five to six hours a day. The norm for elites is three.
On the ice I did another warm-up. Around the rink twice just stroking, then reverse and do the same the other way around the rink. A few minutes of alternating outside and inside rocker power pulls, then a few spins: a couple uprights, sits and camels. And finally a series of jumps, easiest to hardest: Salchow, toe loop, loop, flip, Lutz and Axel. Three times through doing a single of each, then doubles. Triples if I’m feeling them, which I pretty much always do, even that early in the morning. No quad. That was an in-progress thing, only in the harness, and under my dad’s supervision.
When the warm-up was done, I had a decent sweat going and was feeling good. A short breather and some water, and I could finally get into my session. My first morning session is always just me. Dad usually just joined me for my eleven a.m. and four p.m. sessions. You can only work so much with a coach, especially when it’s your dad. Besides, he likes to sleep in on most days and was usually eating his breakfast around eight-thirty, which was when I roll into the kitchen.
My morning session was ninety minutes, not counting the warm-up. If it were football or basketball practice they’d label what I do as drills. There were fifteen I could choose from, each unique and focusing on different elements, ranging from fairly easy to incredibly demanding. Each was designed to take six minutes. This wasn’t an arbitrary length. In competition there are two programs: short and long. The short program was two minutes and forty seconds and was made up of seven specific categories of elements, so in competitions each skater was doing similar moves. The long program was four minutes and included twelve elements. It was often called the free skate because skaters had more freedom to perform what they wanted. So Dad’s theory was if you trained to do a six-minute performance in practice, you’d be strong all the way through four minutes of the real thing. I’d never be competing, but my dad trained me just as he had his competitive skaters back in the day.
I started with The Brians, because all the elements of the drill were from Brian Boitano and Brian Orser routines. Their battle for the gold at the Calgary Olympics was legendary. I skated it at top speed and at full effort for the full six minutes, double Axel and Sal, toe and flip, three spin combinations, seven triples, and two complicated footwork sequences. I had my own reward and penalty system. If I performed it well, I got an eight-minute break before the next drill. If I made one major mistake, or two small ones, I only got five minutes. There was a clock on the wall that kept me honest.
The only break I gave myself was that I started hard, then chose easier routines as the session progressed. Otherwise, it would be impossible to do, I don’t care how good of shape you’re in. If my skating practice were an informercial, flashing on the screen would be:
WARNING! DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME!
Dad said I worked too hard and skated too much. But it’s not like he could say, go outside and play with your friends. The ice was my best friend—my only friend. With five drills completed, I’d finished my first hour. I took a longer break, then did a long program I’d been choreographing, alternating between imagining I was Yuzuru Hanyu with his elegance, then Evgenia Medvedeva with her passion and artistry. I skated it without music because sometimes I love to hear nothing but the crunch and hiss of my blades on the ice. Like most skaters, to feel the ice better I wore my boots a size smaller than my shoe size, so my feet were yelling for freedom by the time I stepped off the ice. I repeated my stretches and my reward was a short, steaming shower.
I’d repeat the session before lunch and in the afternoon, but different activities for each one. Dad squeezed in some group and private lessons in between two days a week, and we had public skating hours Friday and Saturday nights. Between that, coaching me, some cabin rental stuff and keeping the ice and rink pristine, he stayed pretty busy.
After my shower, I found Dad in the kitchen, eating his breakfast. Actually his breakfast sat next to him, forgotten. Spread out over the table were Piezov-Cake protocols, their score sheets from each competition. I looked over his shoulder and saw he was looking at last season’s Skate Canada.
Each page had almost two hundred figures filling countless columns. Every element was listed in shorthand:
Translation: triple toe loop - triple toe loop - double loop jump combo. Next to it is its base value—the most difficult moves getting the most possible points. Each triple toe is worth 4.2 and the double loop 1.7, so the element comes to 10.1. Added or subtracted from that was each judge’s GOEs—the Grade of Execution—which added or subtracted up to five points for how well each element was performed. The total gave you the technical score. But only half the program score came from technical points. The rest was component scores, which everyone calls “presentation,” judging the skater’s choreography, interpretation and skills like transitions and footwork.
You practically need a college degree in skating to decipher a protocol sheet, but it’s the key to a skater getting better. It doesn’t matter if the skater and the coach thought a routine was amazing if the judges didn’t agree. The difference between gold, silver and bronze was often tenths, or even hundredths, of a point.
I said Dad was in the kitchen, but that’s not giving the room justice. Other than our two bedrooms and bathrooms, the only other room was what we called our kitchen, but it was a lot more. It was oddly dimensioned, only fifteen feet wide, but absurdly long, almost a hundred feet, running parallel to the side of the rink. Sharing the wall with my bedroom was the actual kitchen area. Next to that was our dining table. In the old days they’d had several picnic tables set up there to accommodate all the resident skaters, so our little table for two looked shrunken and out of place. Then came two sofas and some mismatched soft chairs and a TV, then in the furthest part of the room was a ping pong table, an old pinball machine and a dart board. The room hadn’t changed since the days the rink was an international training center. Despite its size, almost every inch of the walls was filled with framed pictures of past skaters, podium shots, and more country flags that couldn’t fit into the rink. It was like our personal museum.
I checked the answering machine for cabin rental calls that had come in late yesterday, but there were none. There was a drop box to deposit keys through the wall when guests checked out, and waiting in the tray was the key for cabin 2. That meant there was work waiting for me, and between staking sessions was the ideal time to do it, so no reason to not do it right away. I took a long look out the window to make sure the coast was clear, tied on my mask and stepped outside.
Behind the rink was a parking lot for the cabin rentals, and from there meandering trails to the six cabins, each far enough apart to give a genuine “in the woods” feel. I always thought of cabin 2 as “The Michelle Kwan.” While training here she won the first four of her five World Championship titles, and the first five of her nine National Championships. She was only eleven when she and her older sister and their dad moved here to train full-time, and her banners for all her titles up to 2001 hung in our rafters. Her coach had been Frank Carroll, who was on that same top tier of coaches with my dad and had made the Ice Castle his home rink. My dad told me stories how Michelle had pet hamsters who constantly escaped. She was amazingly elegant and according to my dad, just as nice. Her 1996 World Championship gold medal performance of Salame when she was only fifteen was one of my favorites.
I didn’t like leaving the rink. It’s not that I was afraid outside. Not at all. I loved the woods. The blue jays. The woodpeckers. The squirrels. I’d even catch sight of an occasional deer. But I could do without the humans.
I knew they meant well, but I’d pass on
And worse, sometimes the fear. Theirs, not mine.
Maybe it was the remote mountain setting, but I’d had guests see me coming and do a frenzied turnaround to their cabins and lock their door. The only question was if they’d call my dad or 911. I guess I couldn’t blame them. I looked like a female version of Jason in Friday the 13th. His hockey mask not too different from my kabuki. Who was to say I didn’t have a hatchet behind my back, ready to Jasonize them?
So I much preferred people on the phone. In fact, I liked that a lot. It was my job to take reservations and process credit cards online. The people renting the cabins were always nice and wanted to chat about the weather, local restaurants, shopping, the ski lifts in nearby Big Bear, or whatever. So I had to know all those things even though I never actually experienced them. Over time I’d actually become a pretty good conversationalist.
My lips only come together with effort, and there had been some damage to my throat, so I have a very minor speech problem. Considering it had been a major speech problem before years of work—and multiple surgeries—I was proud of the way I spoke. The funny thing was that on the phone, people were constantly mistaking it for a foreign accent. I was often asked what country I was from. I always asked them to guess. Usually I got eastern European countries like Russia or Romania, but I think people guessed those just because they’d never actually spoken to anyone from there.
I liked to imagine them thinking they’d been chatting with a dazzling foreign beauty.
The cabins pretty much stayed full in the winter when people came up for the skiing or just to enjoy the snow, and in the summer to beat the heat of the valley below. They used to sit empty in the fall and spring, but now we managed to hit at least half occupancy even then. We’d gotten lucky a couple years ago when a small budget movie for the Lifetime Channel used the cabins for some location shooting. It was a film about a gay couple, both dying of cancer, but neither had told the other, and had come to Lake Arrowhead to do so. Sad and romantic, yes. But man did they make Lake Arrowhead and our cabins look good. They were all built in the 1920s and had the original hardwood floors and pine siding, with a potbelly stove and a little kitchenette. Anyway, the movie became quite the hit in the LGBT world, and in no time word spread that the “cute little cabins” in the movie actually existed. The people who mentioned they learned of the cabins from the movie were always our nicest guests.
We made our lives simple by renting them for one week minimums, so we’d basically put fresh sheets on the beds and clean each cabin once a week between rentals, and that was it. We didn’t get rich on the cabins, but considering the rink was a money pit and operated at a loss, it leveled out and kept us going.
In the days of training elite skaters and a full staff of coaches, the facility had a second outdoor rink, and a total of twenty-four cabins, a dormitory, swimming pool and a dining hall. But when Dad’s coaching days ended, he sold off everything but the rink and six cabins to pay off the mortgage on what we kept.
I opened cabin 2 and did a quick scan. It would be an easy clean. I balled up the bedding and headed back. I divided the sheets and blankets up between our two washing machines and gathered up my cleaning supplies and a fresh set of bedding to head back. My goal was always to get the cabin cleaned before the forty-minute wash cycle ended.
On the pathway I ran into the couple leaving cabin 3 (“The Lu Chen,” one World championship and two Olympic bronzes). Sometimes I just couldn’t avoid people. They did the usual physical start when they caught sight of me but quickly recovered. They didn’t turn around and run, maybe because I looked harmless with both my arms full with a broom, mop and cleaning caddy. The odds of my having a hidden hatchet was evidently perceived as low.
People rarely asked me why I wore a mask. The scars and misshapen flesh around the sides of it and on my throat made the reason clear. So with new people this turned into the world’s most awkward conversation where they tried to pretend the scars and the mask didn’t exist. I almost preferred being mistaken for an estrogen-filled Jason.
I found the whole thing exhausting, and the worst part was it served no purpose. They were just as anxious as me for the conversation to end, if for no other reason so they could privately talk about “that poor girl.” And for some reason it always made me sad they would now know the person they thought of as the clever girl with the cute accent on the phone was actually a deformed, masked girl with a slight speech defect.
So although there were times I yearned to go to a store, a movie, whatever, it just wasn’t worth it. But the ice did not
Just the opposite, I felt like it was the domain over which I ruled. And who would ever want to walk when you could skate? Not me anyway.
I cleaned the cabin, got the bed put together and stacked some fresh firewood by the potbelly. I knew Dad was reviewing video on Alex and Lissy so I decided to do the same. We were several months into the new skating season, time skaters used to design and choreograph new short and long program. Soon it’d be time to debut them for the competitive season starting in October, just weeks away—like exhaustive rehearsals before opening a new play on Broadway and hoping for good reviews. Some skaters like to showcase their programs a little early—so Alex and Lissy had competed last month at a small event, the Indy Challenge. I went to every skater’s best friend—nbcsportsgold.com—for the video. I’d seen it before, but this time I played the long program a few times and committed it to memory.
When I got on the ice later that morning, I skated through their routine over and over. I couldn’t do the throws and lifts, of course, but I moved through those elements in my mind and did the spins and jumps and footwork that I could as a single. I wouldn’t expect Piece of Cake to care about the opinion of a nobody like me, but I actually thought their long program had been better last year. I had some ideas I wanted to tell my dad.
With my session over, my mind drifted toward my big teaching debut at two o’clock, an hour away. I gave myself an internal pep talk, remembering past success both with and without the mask. I made a mental list:
1. At the end of each semester I'd go to the school district office to take the home-school final exams. I’d done fine being in a room with a couple dozen other kids as we spent a half-day on tests. That was until some kids blamed their F’s on me because they couldn’t concentrate with me there. Thereafter I had to do mine privately. So never mind that one. Not a confidence booster. Erase, erase.
2. There was Alexa, the college girl who worked our skate rental counter on Friday and Saturday nights. She and I talked sometimes and she was nice.
3. The cabin rental stuff, on the phone and in person.
4. And there were even the people who had to see me without my mask, like when I went to the dentist or the doctor. Most of all there was kindly old Mrs. Gorman. From when I was three until I was seven, she came three times a week. Me, maskless. She, patient and kind. Her gentle hands, without judgment, manipulating my jaw and reconstructed lips. Teaching me to find new ways to use muscles and tendons damaged or destroyed by the fire. Touching me and not cringing at all. Liking me. My Helen Keller to her Anne Sullivan.
So I convinced myself. I could do this. I would do this. Besides, how tough could some kindergarteners be?
Pretty tough, as it turned out.
Dad had asked me to meet him fifteen minutes before the Penguin class was to start. He recommended I be skating when the kids arrived. I figured he thought that would save me awkward questions while waiting for them all to get there, but mainly to give me some cred if they saw me skate.
I was just keeping loose on the ice as the kids came in. Some of the parents would come inside to say hi to my dad, then take off to return an hour later. One of the moms stayed and took a seat. When there were five kids gathered and the clock said two o’clock, I put on a little show, building up my speed, doing two combos, first a triple Lutz - double toe, then a triple flip - double toe, ending in a scratch spin. It was nice to hear the “oohs” and “aahs” from the kids, and they’d all moved to the edge of the ice to get as close as possible.
Dad skated them out. “This is my daughter, Katie. She is going to be your coach today. Why don’t you all introduce yourselves.”
There were three girls, maybe five or six years old, and two boys a year or two older. The girls all had skating outfits and the boys were in L.A. Kings hockey jerseys. Dad had told me it was important when you coach to remember the kids’ names and use them often—it helps them pay attention and shows you care. And the more I said them the faster I’d remember. Made sense. The only problem was that I was now standing in front of the largest group of people I'd ever faced in my life. Thank goodness they were all under four feet tall. But I was wondering how I was going to remember their names.
A blonde girl in orange said, “I’m Brianna. I’ve seen you on Friday skating nights. You skate so pretty!”
“Thank you, Brianna.” I was thinking, orange like honey, honey from bees, “B” for Brianna.
The two remaining girls were both wearing baby blue outfits, so my color coding system was already screwed. One of them said, “I’m Emily, and this is my friend Skyler.” Okay, the sky is light blue, like Sky. Emily, well . . . Emily was on her own.
Boy One said, “I’m Brad and this is my brother Bobby.” Easy. Both “B”s as in brats. They were already hitting each other with their elbows for no apparent reason.
Loudly from the mom in the seating area, “Bobby! Stop hitting your brother!”
Dad clapped his hands together. “Okay, then. Have a good skate everybody.”
And with that, he was heading off the ice and into our apartment. Maybe he thought I’d be nervous with him watching me coach for the first time, and he’d be right. I could handle the humiliation if I failed, but having my father see it happen would make it oh so much worse. I kinda wished the mom would leave too.
Bobby said, “Why are you wearing that mask? Is it a costume?”
Didn’t take long to get the obvious question out there. At least I knew it would come and I’d thought about it. I’d decided to just be as honest as I could.
“I wear a mask because my face is disfigured. I—”
“What’s dis-fig-erd?” Brad interrupted, stumbling over the word.
The mom again, shouting, “Brad! Don’t be rude!”
“Tell you what,” I said. “Let’s start with some skating. How about if you all show me you can skate to the other side of the rink, then I’ll answer your questions. Okay?”
Actually, I wanted to move far enough away from Skating Mom to keep her from listening and commenting, and maybe a bonus would be the kids would forget their questions about me and be ready to focus on skating.
I said, “But first, who can tell me how to fall?”
“I don’t want to fall!” Brad said. “I want to skate!”
“I want you to skate too. But we all fall down, even the best skaters, and it’s important to do it in a way that you don’t get hurt, especially if there are a lot of other skaters around. So who can tell me how to fall?”
Brianna raised her hand. “We try to land on our side and slide. And make fists and keep them close to our body.”
“So someone won’t skate over our fingers and cut them off,” said Brad gleefully.
Gross, but accurate. Skates were incredibly sharp.
“Excellent.” I had the kids spread out safely apart and as a group we skated to the other side of the rink. No falls. No lost fingers.
Before I could say anything, Brad again: “So what’s dis-fig-erd?”
So much for my distraction strategy.
“Disfigured means that my face doesn’t look right. My face got burned when I was little. I wear a mask because most people would not want to look at me. I guess you’d say I’m ugly.” No need to hide behind polite adult words. Ugly is what ugly is.
Brad turned to his brother. “I guess that means you should wear a mask too.”
Bobby smacked Brad on the side of the head and then two brothers were wrestling on the ground. I could hear their mother shouting across the ice, “Stop that! Stop that right now!”
I guess there were some benefits to the fact I’d never be having children. I just ignored them and turned to the girls, who seemed didn't seem surprised by the preschool WWE demonstration at their feet. Maybe it was a feature of every Penguins class.
“Does your face hurt?” Emily asked.
“No, it doesn’t hurt.”
“Do you look like E.T.?” asked Skylar with innocent wonder.
I could see why she’d ask that. The reality was the skin visible on the sides was kind of like E.T.’s, vaguely reptilian. And although I let my hair loop down into a loose pony tail to cover the fact I didn’t have any ears, it still left a sliver of visible skin. At least she compared me to a sweet, lovable alien rather than a lizard or alligator. Honesty with them was one thing, but no need to make them feel bad. Or scared. No need to say the visible parts of my skin did not even come close to the abomination that was my face.
“Yes,” I said. “Kind of like that.”
Her face was so sweet, and so sad. “I’m sorry,” she said. Then hesitantly, “Can I touch it?”
Either because no one was paying attention to them, or they heard the chance to touch something gross, Brad and Bobby got to their feet remarkably fast.
“I want to touch it too!” from both of them.
I didn’t know if I should be thrilled or horrified that they wanted to touch me. I kneeled down and turned my head to the side giving them the thin slice of my face between my mask and my hair. With good manners they lined up one by one. It would only be a freak show if I let it.
Brianna and Skylar were first and said nothing, meekly coming forward then stepping back. Emily said, “It’s so soft.” Bobby said, “Cool!” and Brad said, “Gross!” but somehow not in a mean way. Each was surprisingly gentle.
I stood up. “Okay, can we skate now? Because I love to skate and I want to teach you to be great skaters too.”
That got me an enthusiastic chorus of yeahs. “Great,” I said. “Here’s what I want you to work on today.”
I took off and within three strides I was at almost top speed. I circled the rink once, turned backwards and launched into a double Axel-double toe combo, then a spin, first a layback, down into a cannonball, then up into a scratch spin. I knew to them I was a spinning blur until I suddenly stopped. Then I skated straight at them so fast they shrank back and I did a sharp hockey stop, shooting a shower of ice onto their legs.
“Okay, Brad,” I said. “You first.”
His mouth dropped open.
I laughed. “I’m only kidding. All that’s a lot of lessons away. But if you keep trying, maybe you can get there. Today we’re going to learn what are called crossovers. The reason I could skate so fast going in a circle was that I moved one skate over and across the other with each step I took. That’s what we’re going to start learning today.”
I took them one by one around the rink, me skating backwards and holding both their hands, as I guided them through their first crossovers. The class went so well that when I glanced at the clock to see how much time we had left, I saw it was already a few minutes past three. I’d thought we were less than halfway through. I told them what a great job they had done and that my dad would be back with them for their next class.
They all gave me some version of “bye,” and I even got a high five from “B for brat” Brad, who was not such a brat after all, just an eight-year-old boy in a hockey jersey. Emily had stayed behind and took my hand.
“Can you teach our class next time too?" she asked. “Please?”
I couldn’t wait to tell my dad how well the class went. The world wasn’t such a scary place, at least not today, although I reminded myself that my expanded universe had a maximum age of eight, and I hadn’t left the security of the rink. Still, I felt like I floated into the kitchen where Dad was on his computer. On the screen Alex and Lissy’s long program from the Indy Challenge was playing, the same one I’d been watching earlier. He was intently scribbling notes, but when he heard me come in he paused the screen and gave me all his attention.
I’d taken off my mask the second I was through the door and I’m sure my joy radiated not just from my face but every pore of my body.
“It went that badly, huh?” he said.
“Dad! I should have listened to you before! I really enjoyed teaching. It was fun. And they were fine with the mask. I even let them touch my skin. Here.” I pointed where they’d gently stroked me like a kitten.
That got me a surprised look. “Wow. So is this your way of saying you’ll take over all my classes so I can become a man of leisure? Maybe just drive the Zamboni twice a day to cut your ice?”
“Haha. But seriously, yes! I’ll teach your classes. But only so you can teach them.” I nodded to the screen, where Melissa Cake was frozen mid-throw, flying impossibly high above the ice. I pulled up a chair next to him to share the monitor. “Unpause it. I’ll watch it with you.”
We watched the rest of the short program together, then he started their free skate.
“What are you seeing?” I asked midway through.
“What are you seeing? he countered, his eyes not leaving the screen.
Whenever we watched skaters—and we watched every competition that made it to TV or the internet—we’d analyze the skater’s strengths and weaknesses, and give them scores as if we were judges. He’d spent countless hours teaching me every aspect of a good program. What I learned about choreography was that you should never notice it. It should be invisible. All you should be aware of is how beautiful the skating was. If you think about the choreography, it’s like seeing the strings on a puppet. Dad compared it to a movie. You don’t watch it and think, oh, that actor just said his line really well. When you notice the acting, the actors have failed, but great acting makes you forget it’s a movie.
I noticed Alex and Lissy’s choreography. “They aren’t using Tom Dickson this year?”
“No,” Dad said, his tone giving away his displeasure. “He did their short program, but they switched to Anna Strevoski for the free skate.” She was a big name, but was getting older, and it showed—at least to me.
I said, “I think they took a step backwards. Their short program is great, but the free skate is . . . I don’t know, but I’m not feeling it.”
“The problem,” Dad said, “is not that it’s a bad program. It’s just not a program for two teenage skaters. It’s like taking a rock band and making them sing Frank Sinatra.”
“That’s my point.”
I hadn’t been able to put my finger on why I didn’t like it, but he’d nailed it. The program just didn’t let them show the kind of fun and joy that got them gold at Nationals last year. It was the kind of program one of the older Russian pairs would skate.
“And,” he added, “the choreography is only half the problem.”
Alex and Lissy were a lift and jump-fest—technically brilliant skaters—but they failed to tell a story. They wowed and entertained, but never really touched your heart like the more established pairs. Except for that kiss, that is.
There were three dominant pairs. Everyone in skating called them The Big Three. Russia had not just one but two elite pairs, Romanov-Ludnova and Vrenko-Vlatoya. The third was Peligrino-Maples from Canada. Vrenko-Vlataya had missed last year’s World Championships due to an injury, which had opened the door for Alex and Lissy to grab bronze. The bottom line was that if all four pairs performed at their best, Alex and Lissy would usually end up fourth.
Dad said, “I’ve got a trivia question for you, Miss Skating Encyclopedia. Name the male or female pairs skaters who were eighteen or under when they won a gold medal at the Olympics.”
I prided myself on knowing about every aspect of skating history known to mankind, but I was struggling to come up with any names. I knew there had been six girls under eighteen who’d won gold, three of them at only fifteen, but that was for singles.
Dad said, “Actually, it’s a trick question, so you can stop thinking. There has never been a single male skater younger than twenty-one to win pairs. And there has been only one fe—“
“Ekaterina Gordeeva, Russia,” I said. “The 1988 games, sixteen years old.” The trivia champ was back.
“Right. Good. But you know the point I’m making. The average top pairs teams are usually well into their twenties.”
His point was Alex and Lissy were only eighteen, well below the maturity curve it seemed to take for pairs skaters to emotionally connect to their music, and each other.
“You’ll teach them, Dad.”
“True dat,” he said, ready to give me some knuckles.
But I left him hanging. “Oh, please don’t, Dad. Please. And I’m begging you, not with Alex and Lissy.”
He dropped his fist. “But that was mock! C’mon! Satirical self-parody! Therefor humorous.”
Sometimes he tried too hard. I kept a straight face as I got up to leave.
“C’mon!” from behind me as I left the room.
Dad joined me for my afternoon session. We worked on my triple Axel - triple toe combo. The Axel is the only jump where you take off facing forward. The other five jumps all launch while skating backward. So since every jump is landed skating backward, that means a triple Axel is actually three and a half rotations. That made it the hardest jump by far. Putting any two triples back to back is incredibly tough because of the loss of speed after the first jump, but especially when it’s an Axel.
We’d measured my distance in the air and it was as far as some of the top men—the combination of strong legs, light body and perfect technique. I loved the feeling of soaring so high and so far, elbows tucked in tight as I rotated, the cold air in my face, and the crunch then hiss as my blade found the ice. Few women—or men—in the world can land a triple Axel consistently and most don’t even try it, usually making the Axel only a double. But the triple Axel was mine. As my dad liked to say, I owned it.
We used the harness to work on my quad. Ropes attached above each shoulder, rising above me to what looked almost like a fishing pole. My dad could skate next to me and with just a little tension, keep me upright if needed, like pulling a fish out of water. One of the worst parts of learning new jumps is all the falls, even wearing hip pads, so the harness helped a lot.
It wasn’t that long ago that everyone thought a quad was impossible. But athletes love to challenge the impossible, and sure enough, quads have become a staple of the world’s best male skaters.
But only one woman had ever landed a quad in senior competition: Miki Ando's quad Salchow back in 2002. That is until 2019, when Russia's Anna Shcherbakova—at only 15 years old—hit not just one, but two quads at Skate America. Then weeks later along came another 15-year-old Russian, Alexandra Trusova, who proved she could consistently land them as well. And so began the start of a new revolution in ladies' skating.
So, yeah, us 15-year olds got it going on.
Quads are still super rare for the girl skaters though, with most of even the world's top skaters unable to do them. Only one American girl had ever landed one in senior competition; kinda funny considering that the male quad king, Nathan Chen, was an American.
I was working on a quad Lutz. The Lutz was second only to the Axel in difficulty, but it had always been my favorite. I love outside edge takeoffs. I’d gotten up to landing five or six out of ten. The harness would come off when I was at seventy percent.
Before we finished we played around with Alex and Melissa’s new program and talked about ways to make it younger and showcase what Piece of Cake did best.
I said, “Are you going to mention any of these ideas to them when you guys talk on the phone?”
“Oh, I’m not going to recommend any changes. Not specific ones anyway.”
“But . . . why? And then why are we doing this?
“Katie, the desire to make any changes needs to come from them. That’s the only way they’ll really want to do them—and believe in them. So my job is to make the two of them decide they need some changes, and then lead them to what we just talked about. Or get them to go back to Tom to fix it.”
“Geez, Dad. You are so Machiavellian.” Yes, even we, the homeschooled, have read about the darkly cunning Machiavelli. “I never knew you were so sneaky.”
“Coaching one-oh-one,” he said.
“Wait,” I said, as something suddenly dawned on me. “So what psychological foo-foo stuff have you been using on me all these years?”
“On you?” He gave me an innocent face. “Never. You’d see right through me.”
I wasn’t so sure about that, but whatever he used to get me to be the skater I was, it was okay with me, sneaky or not. I thought I knew a lot about the coaching side of skating but evidently not.
When I went to bed I was so happy. It had been a great day. Taking over Dad’s class. Landing the quad six out of ten tries—in a harness, but still. And working with him on Alex and Lissy’s program. I knew it wasn’t a sure thing they would come, but we were getting ready just in case. One thing I did know was my dad could make them better if they gave him the chance. Although he was trying to play it cool, I could see him getting excited about the possibility as well. Their weaknesses were his strengths, so a perfect pairing. And sometime tomorrow Barbara Felsdorf was coming. We’d know a lot more then.
Today is my birthday. I am eight. We have a dog now his name is Mister Beavers and we gave him a bath so he can sleep in bed with me!! I am sorry my face is not fixed yet so you can come home. I had five surgerys on my mouth so I can talk very good now! But I had a heart attack when they did the last one and now they wont do any more surgerys. I am sorry. I can do all my doubles. My salchow lutz, loop, flip, and toe loop are really good now, and even my double axel is almost as good!
I love you.
I kept my old letters in my desk drawer, covered with notebooks and out of sight, but never out of mind. I could remember sitting with a dictionary to try to make my letters perfect. I never had an address to mail them, so I kept them for when she came home. I had imagined putting them in a pretty basket with flowers, and she’d cry when I gave them to her because she’d know I'd never forgotten her. That fantasy ended a long time ago, but I kept the letters. I don’t know why.
I didn’t technically have a heart attack like I'd thought of it then. It had been a cardiac arrest. That’s when it’s not your heart that has the defect, it’s another part of your body shutting down your heart. For me it happened during my fifth surgery, something to do with my body’s reaction to anesthesia and a lot of five-syllable words. But the bottom line was even though I’d made it through the first four surgeries with no problems, almost losing me during the fifth didn’t make doctors excited about me as a future patient. And my dad wasn’t willing to give them another chance anyway. No matter how many surgeries I would have had, I’d still never look normal. I could see and speak and hear, and I was grateful for that.
One good thing about reading the letters was they fired me up for practice: Rage v. Mom = fire on ice. By seven-thirty that morning I had more than my usual sweat going. I was on the last drill of the morning. Usually I go hardest to easiest, but I was feeling so strong I repeated the hardest drill last. Today Justin Timberlake was accompanying me with how he Can’t Stop the Feeling, and I timed my last two moves, the triple Axel - triple toe combo, then right into a very tricky change of foot combination spin, to end right on his last note.
And I freaking nailed them!
The entire six minutes had been close to perfect, and the two final elements ridiculously good. I held my final position long enough to let the audience, had there been one, finish their standing ovation. I waved to the imaginary crowd as I moved off the ice.
There was someone in the lobby.
My mind clicked like a very slow computer. Black lady, regal-looking, like her profile belonged on British money. In her 50s. I’d seen her picture countless times in Skating magazine. Due here today but not this morning. Barbara Felsdorf.
Thankfully I was wearing my mask. I’d realized last night that if Alex and Lissy were coming, I’d have to wear it all the time when I was out of my room. Although I did wear it for public skates, I preferred to skate without it since it made seeing a little harder, cutting down my peripheral vision. So I needed the practice skating with it.
“Oh,” I said. “Um, hello.”
She stepped away from the wall toward the ice. “Hello. You must be David’s daughter.”
“Um . . . ah . . . um, yes.”
Um, ah, um. Seriously? Such an idiot.
“I’m Barbara Felsdorf. I got in late last night and your father put me up in one of the cabins. I saw the lights on in here and decided to check it out. It’s been a long time since I was here. The place looks good.”
“Our ice is great.”
Seriously? That was smooth. Oh, my God. Next, drool will run down my chin.
She smiled. “Yes, great ice. Of that I had no doubt.”
I had nothing. I just stood there. Finally, I said, “I’m Katie. It’s nice to meet you ma’am.”
“The skating world is pretty informal, Katie. You don’t need to call me ma’am. Call me Mrs. Felsdorf.”
“Oh, okay. Well, nice to meet you Mrs. Felsdorf.”
“Katie, that was a joke. Call me Barbara.”
She must have been thinking she was talking to a moron. A masked moron.
“Oh, okay. Ah, Barbara.”
I could see something click in her mind. “Ah. So that was you . . . I saw your video.”
What? My video? Oh.
The day I’d worn my mask for the first time at the public skate. Someone had started videoing about halfway into it and posted it on YouTube. No information, just the title, Little Skater Girl. Thankfully they didn’t include the part with me falling and the mask skidding away. Along with the countless cute cat videos that found their few minutes of internet fame, I’d had mine—luckily anonymously. It had something like a four million views in a few days. I had no idea how those things happened. I hadn’t thought of it in a long time.
“How old were you in that?” she asked. “Eight?”
She shook her head thoughtfully. “Hmm, perfect double Lutz - double toe combos at six. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that. You know, I called your father when I saw it. I recognized the rink. But he never called me back.”
Dad had never told me.
I wasn’t exactly holding up my end of the conversation so I didn’t blame her when she’d evidently had enough. After a long pause she said, “Well, it was very nice to meet you, Katie. I’m headed out to breakfast. Is that place, Bilber’s, still there?”
“Vilmer’s. Yes. It was nice to meet you too . . . Barbara.”
She got as far as the door and turned around. “Would you like to join me?”
Yes! Yes! Say yes! This was the skating equivalent of the President of the United States asking me to breakfast. But I said, “No, I’m sorry . . . I don’t leave. The property I mean.”
She gave me a long look, her face expressionless. Finally, she nodded. “I understand.”
Her hand was on the doorknob when I pulled up some courage. “Um, Mrs. . . . Barbara?”
She turned back to me. “Yes?”
“How much of my skating did you see?”
That got me another long look. Her answer was so soft it was as if she were speaking to herself. “Enough,” she said. And with that she was out the door.
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