The firelight in the fireplace danced as the snow swirled outside, but Regina couldn’t enjoy it. She had been inside tidying and preparing food alone in the inn for what felt like an eternity. The snow had been falling – gentle but steady – for days. Still, the fear of being snowed in had scared off many of her customers. The night came early here and hers was the last overnight stop before reaching the summit.
Had it been hours, days, weeks? It was hard to say with every day exactly the same. All she knew for sure was that she missed the brilliance of sunlight. Especially the way it warmed her cheeks and burned away the darkest parts of her hair to reveal auburn. At present, her pale, olive skin and straight, black tendrils would have to do.
A tube radio blared from an open shelf behind her, next to the CB radio she used to connect with suppliers in town when the snow took out the phones. The weatherman, bombastic as ever, had dubbed this The Storm of the Century. She knew better than to trust the look of the sky but she’d become old friends with the storms through the years, getting to know their different moods and styles. They would have scoffed to hear the weatherman’s claims.
The front door to the tiny inn swung open, courtesy of her first reservation in over a week. Four mountaineers brought the swirl of cold air and loud conversation. She turned off the radio and the kitchen was filled instantly with the distant sounds of clunking gear and tired chatter. She sighed with relief, for the income and the ability to silence that bloated meteorologist.
She watched unseen from an opening between the lobby and the kitchen as they pulled off their gear and set it down in a soggy pile in the mudroom just inside the front entry. It would have to be cleaned up soon enough, but she didn’t mind.
The men varied in shape and size but, as they pulled off the goggles and ski masks, their cheeks were all reddened from a day of wind and sun. She was jealous of their chapped skin. It had been too long since she enjoyed the warmth, even burning, of the outdoors.
As the group spread out across the lobby, the guest with dark-rimmed glasses announced, “Dude, your face looks like a tomato,” before slapping his sunburnt friend on the back.
“Damnit. Does anyone see a mirror? The last thing I need is a chapped face for our photos at the peak-”
“You all look like tomatoes,” announced the third of the group. He added with a chuckle, “Melanin for the win.” Regina could still see some redness across his cheeks despite the smooth ebony of his skin. She stared for a moment too long, catching his eye. He called out to her, “Hello?”
She stepped forward, wiping her hands on her apron. “Welcome! Sorry. I’ve been preparing dinner. I hope you’re all hungry.”
“Starving!” the fourth guest shouted from the shadows of the entryway where he was still kicking off heavy boots.
“Excellent,” Regina said. Her voice was calm and slow compared to the frenzy they brought with them. They straightened and quieted as if being chided by a school teacher. “Dinner is served in the dining room over there.” Their eyes followed as she gestured to a long table on the opposite side of the room.
“And our rooms?” asked the fourth guest as he emerged from the entryway. She could see his face was full of freckles and his hair shone a bright red even in the dim light. She paused as he interrupted. He reached out to shake her hand, “Sorry, hi. I’m Kyle Pruitt.”
She did not return the handshake but smiled warmly, holding her thin arms tight to her chest. “Pruitt. You’re here for two nights, yes?”
Kyle pulled his hand back and smiled brightly. “Yes! Nice to meet you.”
The dark-haired tomato sidled up to the pair, standing a little too close to Regina. She took a step back as he drew two fingers to his forehead, offering a casual salute and nod. “Dan.”
She nodded as he looked her up and down, a slight smile lifting one corner of his mouth. Even after a day of sweating under layered clothing, his cologne was overwhelming. She took another step back and pulled her arms tighter around her chest.
“He has that effect,” Kyle whispered to her with a kind smile. Dan stepped back then and pointed to the guest with glasses, “That’s Jamie.” Then he sidled up to the dark-skinned friend who offered a slight wave before adding, “And this is Isaac.”
She raised an eyebrow and looked over each guest, hands now locked together behind her back. Isaac’s hand dropped from its wave as he leaned back in the large upholstered chair by the entry. Dan ran his hands through his product-filled hair and adjusted the sleeves of his damp sweater, suddenly uncertain. Jamie smiled wide at first, then began cleaning his glasses with the hem of his shirt. Kyle shoved his hands in his pockets, smiling patiently, eyes wide and watching.
She enjoyed seeing them all squirm, but there was business to conduct. She began again. “There are two rooms in the loft, each with bunk beds. There’s a full bath in between with hot water at the ready. Take what you need for the night upstairs. I’ll take care of any mess from your day’s adventures. There is also a hot tub on the upper deck, to the West of the house down the hall from your rooms. You can look at the stars while you soak,” she gestured then. The men’s eyes brightened as they looked toward where the hot tub must be. “Keys to each room are on the table by the fire. My room is in the back of the house behind our operations-”
She placed her hand to her forehead. “I’m sorry. My operation. I’m still in the habit of saying ‘our’ since my father passed.”
“I’m sorry,” Isaac and Kyle both said in unison.
After an appropriate period of quiet passed, Kyle glanced toward Dan, who then jumped up to ask. “Who’s ready for the hot tub?”
The dining table overlooked the downslope of the mountain, the closest town twinkling in the far distance. On it was a large pot roast, glistening and steaming against the natural chill of the inn. In warmed serving dishes around the main course were glazed carrots, baked potatoes, and buttered biscuits. Jazz music floated in from the small radio in the kitchen. Across the lobby, the flames continued to dance on the logs, crackling occasionally as if to chime in with a song of their own.
Jamie stopped mid-step upon seeing the spread. “Wow.” The other three sat down with a groan, sore from days of hiking. Jamie followed suit, sighing slightly as he landed.
“Kyle really hooked us up!” Dan said.
Kyle smiled then turned toward Regina – who was standing near the kitchen – and said, “Thank you. This looks amazing.” The rest of the group nodded and mumbled, all in various stages of filling their plates and mouths. Regina smiled and left them to it, listening from the kitchen as she cleaned up.
They spoke of how far they’d come, and some young women they’d met in the town down the way. “I can’t believe she gave you the time of day,” Kyle said to Dan, shaking his head.
Dan laughed, “Me either, and I was there.” After a moment’s pause, he lowered his voice to ask, “How old do you think she is?” nodding his head toward the kitchen.
Kyle stifled a laugh behind his cloth napkin. Jamie’s eyes bulged.
“What?” Dan asked. Nobody was willing to respond. To change the subject, he turned to Isaac. “Doing okay, man? You haven’t said much.”
Isaac’s gaze broke away from the snowfall outside the window. “Just thinking about the storm and the tough hike tomorrow-”
Regina appeared then, holding a case of cold beer. “What storm? Oh, that? That’s nothing. Does anybody want a beer?” She smiled, displaying a local lager. “We’ve also got whiskey-”
The group cheered and even Isaac stepped out of his deep thinking to grab a bottle.
“How was the food?” she asked while clearing the table after they’d finished.
“So good. Reminds me of my mom’s pot roast,” Jamie said.
Regina flicked her wrist as if to shush the compliments. “Thank you. If you’re still hungry, there are fresh chocolate chip cookies in the kitchen. And everything you need to make hot cocoa is on the table by the fire. Help yourself. I’m heading to bed shortly. You’ll need a hot breakfast before you set out.”
Before she could exit, Dan raised an eyebrow as a sly smile spread across his lips. “Don’t you want to join us for a nightcap?”
She raised an eyebrow in return and mirrored his smile. “Oh, no. Women who can make pot roasts as good as I do are too old for boys like you.” Regina winked and headed deeper into the inn, her hips swiveling as she walked.
Dan glared at Jamie again. When she was out of earshot he added, “Stupid! You made her feel old.”
“Lay off him,” Kyle cleared his throat and smirked. “I don’t think age is the problem here.”
Isaac added, “It’s not like she had any interest in you anyway.”
“How would you know? You’ve been zoned out all night.”
“I have eyes.”
Dan was incredulous as he looked at each one of his friends. “An attractive woman? Alone? She’s probably desperate for a man’s touch.”
“She could be gay,” Jamie posited, thoughtfully. “Or asexual.”
“Enough with the wokeness-” Dan began.
Kyle interrupted with a broad smile, “Or she could be one of those women who writes letters to serial killers.” Jamie pulled his hand to his face to stifle a laugh.
“I think if she had any interest in any of us, she wouldn’t have called us boys,” Isaac added.
Defeated, Dan shrugged and leaned back in his chair. After a few minutes of quiet, he slammed what remained of his beer and lifted the bottle of whiskey into the air. “Let the old maid sleep while we have some fun!”
A couple of hours later, Jamie had settled into one of the couches placed kitty-corner to the fire. Dan was sprawled with disappointment across the second couch – set directly across the coffee table – after he had failed to inspire a second round of shots. Isaac was slumped in a large upholstered chair in the corner, once again facing the window toward the town. His eyes fluttered as he neared sleep. Kyle was napping on the rug in front of the fire, his hair as red as the flames behind him.
Regina appeared in the entryway. Her voice, calm as before, but softer now as she whispered, “You boys need anything?” She was dressed in a thick and modest robe, with a hot mug of tea clutched to her chest. “I couldn’t sleep.”
Dan sat up a little too eagerly. “Is it alright if we turn the hot tub on again?” A groan emerged from the two who were not yet asleep.
She shrugged, blew on her tea, and smiled. “It’s no bother. My room is nowhere near it, and it’s there for your enjoyment. Just be careful. Alcohol and hot tubs are a dangerous mix.”
Jamie threw his arm over his eyes to hide the light. “I’m not sure a hot tub is a good idea man. Maybe a cold shower instead?”
Isaac laughed, having perked up from the sound of conversation. Kyle snored on the rug.
Dan headed back upstairs to the hot tub as the rest of his friends dozed in the lobby.
Isaac woke up first the next morning, cocooned in blankets on the top of their shared bunk. “Kyle?”
Kyle sat up suddenly “I’m awake.” He rubbed his eyes as Isaac headed across the hall.
Isaac knocked on the locked door of the room opposite them as the smell of hashbrowns, pancakes, and bacon wafted up from downstairs. “Guys?”
“I’m up!” Jamie called through the closed door, his voice muffled and drowsy. Unconvincing.
Once all three were dressed, they followed the delicious scents down the stairs. Jamie asked, “Have you seen Dan?”
“No-” Kyle’s reply was interrupted by an enormous yawn. “You?”
Downstairs, Regina was setting warm serving dishes down. She smiled. “Good morning! I hope you’re all hungry.”
“Very,” Kyle said as he slid into the closest chair and began serving himself.
Isaac asked Regina, “Have you seen our other friend?”
Regina pursed her lips and furrowed her brow. “Not since last night when he asked about the hot tub. You were all a tad drunk, I suspect. Was he not in his room?”
Kyle shrugged and Jamie shook his head. Isaac continued, “Did you see him leave?”
“You’re the only ones I’ve seen this morning. It’s nearly noon, though, what with the long winter nights and the storm. Do you think he got a head start?”
Kyle rolled his eyes and let out a heavy sigh. “I wouldn’t put it past him.” Jamie chuckled in between hurried bites.
After breakfast, Isaac searched the inn; Dan had a predilection for passing out in random places. The hot tub showed no sign of him beyond an empty beer bottle and some puddles which had iced over from the cold. His gear and belongings were nowhere to be found.
“Have you tried to radio him?” Jamie asked as he pulled on one of many layers.
Isaac nodded. “It just doesn’t make sense, though. He’s never up first.”
Jamie scoffed, “I dunno. He bails on us pretty regularly.” His face soured and his eyes narrowed. “He did it back in town when he met that girl…”
Kyle sighed and headed toward the stack of gear by the entry. “I guess we better head up after him, then.”
After the trio had been gone for over an hour, Regina headed back into her quarters at the back of the inn. There laid her partner, Augustus, and their familiar, Johan. In an ancient, whispered tongue she asked, “Did you dispose of the body near the mountain top?”
“Yes,” said Augustus. He lounged on a red velvet settee, his cream-colored shirt partly unbuttoned, with flecks of blood across the neckline. He was slowly wiping the blood from his neck and face with his fingers, then licking them clean.
She turned to Johan to ask, “And he was in full gear, prepared for the cold as requested?”
Johan nodded, avoiding eye contact as usual. He rubbed his hands together, ignoring the dried blood under his fingernails. They were chapped from dressing the boy’s cold body for a warmth he’d no longer feel.
Regina smiled wide, revealing two jagged rows of teeth. “Good.” It had been so long since she had been able to see the sun. It was such a treat to taste it.
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Love the twist at the end!