Frigid air from the cloud-covered peaks whispered down the Rocky Mountains, swirling around tree trunks like the ice-cold eddies circling river stones. Majestic Blue Spruce crowded the mountain face as they branched out from their sparsity near the tree line. The Respite Inn sat nestled in a cove, guarded by 90-foot Douglas Firs. In a world of her own, shrouded in the quiet beauty, Emma was content.
Emma sat by the fireplace, stilled by the silence at the end of the day. She inherited the inn from her father, a man she never really knew. He had chosen to abandon his family––a wife and two children––when Emma was only five. Although he sent cards for certain holidays, a stuffed bunny at Easter, a doll every Christmas, Emma only recalled a visit from dear old dad twice in her life.
So, when he passed away when Emma was 40 years old, she didn’t feel much emotion at all. Embarrassed by her apathy, Emma didn’t announce that her dad had died. In this way, she avoided the explanations that would seem necessary. From that moment on, she was alone in the world. Emma’s mom had passed when Emma was only 15. Her maternal grandmother then took on the responsibility for Emma and her younger, gregarious brother, Stephen. Unfortunately, her grandmother also passed two years before, and Stephen died in a car crash on his high school graduation night.
Emma had grown up as an anxious child, carrying her concerns in her shoulders, shrugged high to her ears with tension. She grew into the stereotypical bitch boss, feared by her underlings, admired from the top for her fastidious business acumen.
Emma’s sentiments remained deadened, a tiny blip on the linear scale when the attorney’s letter arrived informing her that her dad had left a Will and that she was inheriting his mountain lodge. She assumed it was another mess she would have to clean up or tear down. Six months after he died, she finally made the trip to Colorado prepared to deal with this inn.
Five years later, Emma was now the resident owner of The Respite Inn, a place of refuge for mountaineers. Her shoulders were relaxed, and she no longer suffered from her diagnosed anxiety disorder. Emma came to understand that her workload and lifestyle had created this anxiousness. She was free from the chronic migraines and neck spasms that would sideline her for several days a month. She allowed her long golden hair to grow out wildly and quickly brushed it into a ponytail each morning. She rarely wore makeup in this new life, and the scrubbed face look showed off her flawless complexion. She was radiant.
The days living up in the mountains were calm. The solitude suited Emma, and she never tired of the spectacular scenery. It took a year for her ears to feel normal, without the bombardment of traffic noise, constant background chatter of the office, the steady clanking of the subway speeding along the iron rails. She traded all of that for the bubbling sound of a meandering creek just feet from her lodge, the dawn chorus from the variety of birds, the crunching of pine needles under her boots. Emma learned to love the mountains madly, and in return, they loved her back.
The Respite Inn usually accommodated 5 to 10 guests each night. Many mountaineers used her inn for their base. Seasoned climbers would sometimes camp out during their treks, not returning for a few days. The rookie climbers left for day hikes; their gear strapped on strategically, worn proudly as if a uniform. Emma kept a laminated checklist in each cabin as a friendly reminder of the essentials: maps, compass, altimeter, GPS, and a PLB (personal locator beacon). Each hiker needed to prepare for the unfathomable.
On a typical Thursday, the busiest day for new guests to arrive for long weekends, Garth walked in. Other guests were seated around the rough-hewn wood table, enjoying one of Emma’s evening spreads. Lighting in the great room, at this hour past dusk, was provided mainly by a large fire, crackling with orange, yellow, and blue flames in the stone fireplace. The savory aroma of roasted root vegetables and pork loin filled the air.
Garth appeared to be in his 20’s but without the arrogance or superiority that she sometimes noticed in the younger generation. He said this was only his second climb and enjoyed anything connecting him to nature. His blond hair reached to his shoulders but was shiny and well kept. He worked outdoors assessing ecosystems before establishing new roadways, and she could tell that he thoroughly respected the plants and animals in their natural habitat.
The morning after Garth checked in, Emma arranged guests’ lunch packs and thermoses for the climb that day. Garth was the first one up and slid in beside her, effortlessly joining to help.
“Oh, no, Garth. Go sit down, and I’ll bring your coffee. I’ll lay out breakfast in a few minutes when others arrive.”
“No, ma’am, I’m pleased to help you. I enjoy it.” Garth smiled at her, and his easy-going nature instantly warmed her.
They bantered for a few minutes while other guests shuffled in. Garth helped carry trays of bacon, cinnamon rolls, eggs, and fruit to the table. Emma poured coffee and juice.
After breakfast, the mountaineers headed out for their various planned hikes. Emma cleaned the kitchen and spent the morning straightening each cabin. She was very intrigued that Garth was the only guest that had unpacked, and his suitcase didn’t sit in the corner with clothes tossed over the sides. Garth made his bed too. His mama trained him right!
Over the weekend, Garth arrived back at the inn early one afternoon. He felt tired and decided to sit in one of the rockers on the front porch and enjoy nature. Emma brought him a cup of steaming cocoa, hoping she wasn’t interrupting his alone time.
“Sit with me for a spell, Emma, so we can visit.”
“I can certainly do that,” she smiled and pulled up another rocker so they could share the small table in between.
Over the next few days, Emma and Garth talked more than she usually spoke in a month. She was 45, and he was 28, and she felt confused by the pull she felt toward him. His distinctive smile was engaging. His one dimple on the left side was present only when he grinned. Emma felt at ease spending time with him and started looking forward to his presence each morning before breakfast.
Emma noticed Garth’s kindness, manners, and a strong sense of purpose for his life with each passing day. She started to examine all the years she had let negativity rule her life. Emma had allowed her many losses to stifle her dreams and shape whom she had become. It had been years since she analyzed how her life would have looked if she had made different choices. Living in the mountains, getting out of the rat race, had changed her in so many ways. Emma knew she was much happier in this isolated life. Quick friendships with passing guests were enough to sustain her. But she realized she would miss Garth when he left. She was startled and embarrassed by this admission. After never pursuing a serious relationship since high school, she thought it was absurd that she felt a deep tug and connection with him. Yet, she was happier in those moments around Garth than she had been as an adult.
The day before Garth planned to check out, she asked him if he would like to take a walk, knowing that with his gracious manner, he would accept. So, she packed a brunch, assorted her gear, and laced her hiking boots. She wasn’t sure what her ulterior motive was in hiking with Garth; she only knew that she hated to see him go. Over the years, she occasionally had repeat guests, but these were crazy thoughts. She was alarmed to think that she might be attracted to Garth, but she felt as if they were meant to be together.
They climbed a moderate trail, talking easily until the steepness made them concentrate a little more and breathe a little harder. Mid-morning, they stopped for brunch. Tall firs formed a copse in a thicket that provided shade from the glaring sun. Emma spread out a blanket and opened small containers of fruit, boiled eggs, bread, and jam. Garth poured hot coffee from the thermos. They talked for an hour with the same relaxed flow they had enjoyed since they met.
“Where is your family from, Garth?”
“Well, I was raised in Minnesota, and then we moved to South Carolina when I was 10. So, I’ve had mountains and Coastal waters in my life.” Garth smiled, reaching for another slice of homemade bread.
“What’s your family’s heritage? Mine is English and Scottish, with a little German thrown in.” Emma relaxed back on the blanket.
“Oh, I don’t know. My mom is Italian. I have a great big Italian family, very boisterous. But I’m adopted, so I actually don’t know my heritage.”
“It seems like you’ve had a pretty good life, though?” Emma posed this as a question.
“Sure did. My parents adopted me when I was a newborn, so I don’t have memories of any other life. My family is incredible, though. I couldn’t have wanted for any better.”
He was resting sideways on the red and black checkered blanket, his hand supporting his head. Then, as Garth answered Emma, he turned sideways to look up at her. And he smiled. That smile, the way his eyes looked at her at this particular angle. Her hand raising a mug of coffee stopped, suspended halfway.
“You’re 28, right? So, when’s your birthday?” she sat up straighter, thoughts scrambling.
“August 15, ’93.”
The branches above them swayed in a sudden gust of wind. Emma shivered as if the cold had blown right through her. Tingling started in her fingers but soon spread throughout her limbs. She had to calm herself so that she wouldn’t hyperventilate. Could it be? 1993. She had been 17. Her grandmother was mortified when Emma started getting fat, and then she admitted she was pregnant. Just a senior in high school, and she and her boyfriend Brian, destined to be together forever, hadn’t been careful enough. Their love and passion, and teenage lust, had made them reckless. Emma hid the pregnancy for as long as she could because she didn’t know what to do. And she was afraid. When her grandmother guessed at the truth, Emma completely broke down. Her future was cast at that moment.
Emma wasn’t given options, and her grandmother quickly sent her away. She went to live at a home for unwed mothers, mostly teens like herself. The girls continued their education, but all the babies went up for adoption. Emma was young and naïve and knew she had no way to raise her baby then realistically. In her shame, Emma never communicated with Brian or her friends again. Her grandmother spread the news that Emma had gone off to college early. Emma earned her high school diploma before her son was born, and she never went back home to live.
Emma never allowed herself to relive those moments of her son’s birth. The wretched agony of pain, writhing with each contraction, her body knowing what to do but her mind enveloped in sheer terror. The sticky blood, the raw smells. She tore apart as her beautiful baby forced his way into the world. She felt the rip of her delicate, swollen skin, and it was more than she could bear. Emma held her son briefly, the nurses standing ready to remove him. But as they whisked him away, she screamed, clutching at him while two nurses pulled him from her. A part of her soul was damaged that day, a piece sheared off and left ragged for the rest of her life.
And now she wondered if her mind was playing tricks, allowing her magical thinking. How could a random guest be her son? But that smile, that sideways glance. It was just like Brian’s.
“Emma!” Garth sat up. “Why are you crying? What’s wrong?” He reached his hand for Emma. She didn’t feel her wet cheeks, wasn’t aware that she had been crying, tears dripping down on her jacket. The fir tree swayed, the air blew crisp, a bird sang nearby. She trembled and released the sob she had been holding back for years.
The following month, after the DNA tests confirmed her suspicions, Emma left The Respite Inn and flew to South Carolina, where Garth, her son, was anxiously waiting at baggage pickup.
When Garth saw Emma coming off the escalator, he ran to greet her, opening his arms and lifting her in a fierce hug. They had been talking by phone every few days, arranging their tests, and planning her visit.
“My mom’s waiting for us at her house. She’s so excited to meet you. She put together an entire slide show so you can sit through every stage of my growing up,” Garth talked fast, trying to relay all the information at once.
Emma couldn’t stop staring at her son, the unusual, perplexing tug replaced by their solid connection of love. Garth grabbed Emma’s suitcase, and they headed out to his car. Emma walked toward her new life.
She was at peace and content. She had never dreamed of a reunion with her son. Until that moment, she had never realized the soul-crushing trauma of giving up her baby, a decision forced on her without regard for her desires or needs, had carried forward into her adult life. Now, finally, her heart began to heal. She would help Garth in his quest to find his birth father, Brian. Is it too much to wonder where this will lead if we find Brian?