Kimberli Buffaloe is a pastor's wife, Penwright, and creator of Carolina Towns and Trails (www.carolinatownsandtrails.com), a blog featuring outdoor destinations around the Carolinas. Her posts have appeared in the Chicago Sun Times and other national publications via Blogburst, and spotlighted on WYFF's Sound Off South. She has written several short stories and is currently working on a novel. She and her husband live in eastern North Carolina with their Westie and Jack Russell Terror.
Kathy hitched her shoelaces and double knotted the strings of her boots. She stood, swiped wood chips from her backside, and gazed across the Shining Rock Wilderness. Sunlight reflected off mica and quartzite embedded in mountain peaks, a scene unchanged from her last visit. The only thing missing was Brian.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Air laced with balsam and a hint of rime ice filled her lungs, easing strained muscles. Freeing memories. Cold Mountain had been Brian’s favorite hike long before the book or movie brought the curious to its twisting paths and steep slope. So familiar with the trail, he no longer needed a guide or a compass. He’d convinced her to trek to the overview below the summit for their first date. Three years later, after dragging her back up the 6,000-foot peak to pick blueberries the size of marbles, he proposed.
“Kat, it’s getting late.”
Kathy glanced at the bear of a man stationed near a cluster of Turks Cap lilies bobbing in the stiff breeze. Resting on his new hiking stick, his natural frown emphasizing his natural gruffness, he looked more impatient than he had fifteen minutes earlier.
“I need a few minutes.”
Jason jerked his head in the direction of the sun. “We need to get moving if we want to reach the trailhead before dark.”
“We can make it if we keep a steady pace.”
“Maybe you can, but this hike is about to kill me. Why didn’t you tell me it was over ten miles?”
A reminder that he’d invited himself almost spilled off her tongue, but she flicked her gaze beyond his sagging frame to the spot where his eighteen-year-old son, hands on hips, stared at nearby peaks coated with evergreens. During the ride from Asheville, Travis had stretched across the backseat to “catch up on sleep,” contradicting Jason’s claim that his son had badgered him to tag along on the excursion. But once on the Blue Ridge Parkway, an unexpected love emerged, and Travis sat up and stared through the window at the layers of hazy ridges filling the horizon.
She knew the look. Travis was learning what Brian had taught her five years ago. Separated from the noise and stress of city life, formed by the clash of lands, the mountains were a place to connect with the Creator. A reminder of His glory and sovereignty. Where wisps of clouds flitting around folded peaks seemed the very breath of God. The mountains called her to that reminder, and to the memory of time spent with her husband.
She followed the path of a peregrine falcon soaring in silence near an outcropping below. “You’re a police officer. I thought you could handle it.”
“I’m a detective. You work across the hall from me, so you should know how often I chase down suspects.”
“At least we took the short route.” She met his gaze. “A few more minutes, Jason. Travis would appreciate it, and so would I.”
Deepening his frown, he propped his hiking stick against the trunk of a balsam fir and pulled three granola bars from his pack, tossing one to her and the other to his son. She appreciated the gesture, and Jason’s unspoken concern, but she needed silence.
And a chance to say one more good-bye. Over the past year, she’d spent listless days and nights grieving Brian’s loss and his absence beside her. Asking God why He took her husband. Why He’d left her behind. On the anniversary of Brian’s death, at the moment police—Jason—estimated he’d taken his last breath, she fell to her knees before the cross and begged God either to take her or give her strength to move on. Peace flooded her heart at that moment. Changing peace. The tears that fell were tears of gratitude for God’s grace and for time spent with the man she’d loved. A week later, she did what Brian would expect her to do. Hike the mountain and let go.
The falcon banked toward her, wings spread, and dropped to the valley below.
Her chest tightened. “Good-bye, Brian. I love you.”
Sniffing back tears, she scrubbed her face with both hands then crumpled the granola wrapper and placed it in a zippered pouch on her pack.
Jason swiped crumbs from his hands, shooting her an “it’s about time” look.
With legs long and gangly, Travis moved toward them, trampling weeds with oversized boots. It wouldn’t be long until he would look his six-foot-five father in the eye. “Hey, Kathy. Can we come back sometime?” He lifted his shoulders. “I mean, if it’s not too hard.”
For the first time that day she smiled. “Anytime you want, but there’s a slew of trails here and in Pisgah Forest, several that lead to waterfalls. We should check those out.”
She slung the strap of her pack over her shoulder. “We’ll have to leave your dad at home, though. I don’t think he’s a fan.”
“It’s not safe to hike alone, Kathy.” Jason snapped his pack around his waist and retrieved his walking stick. “Don’t you read the reports we file on lost or injured hikers?”
“We discussed the fact that I’m a big girl, Jason. And I won’t be alone. I’ll be with Travis.” She stepped to the edge of the descent that led to the trailhead. “Now, be careful. If you thought climbing up was bad, wait until—whoa.”
The dirt shifted beneath her boot. She fell forward in a twisted split, slamming her chest against the ground and right leg. Then she slid down the embankment, past firs and blueberry bushes.
“Jason!” The scream echoed through the trees. She scratched dirt, roots, rocks, scrabbling for a hold.
“Kathy!” The two male voices blended in panic. They would come for her, down the slope. Too fast. He was too heavy.
She hit something protruding from the dirt and banked. Banked as the falcon had. Banked and rolled and then smashed into a tree trunk.
Air left her lungs in a wumph. And pain—oh, the pain—burned her leg, back, along her arms. Through blurred eyes, she watched Jason and Travis’s efforts to reach her. Travis on his rear in a reverse crab walk. Jason bouncing from tree to tree like a cue ball on a pool table.
Travis reached her first. Mica-speckled dust shimmered on his face. She opened her mouth but no sound, no breath entered or left. Brine coated her eyes, spilling toward her hairline.
“Dad, she can’t breathe!”
Hands landed on Travis’s shoulders and pushed him aside.
“Kathy? Kat?” Jason knelt beside her, the fear in his eyes, his heart, draining blood from his face. He cared.
She lurched her chest, tried to inhale. Fill her lungs with the cool air of the mountain Brian loved. Jason’s eyes turned wild. No, he cared.
She worked her lips but silence answered. He skimmed his hand along the back of her neck, shifted her head, raised her chin, and checked her mouth for blockage.
Sunlight glinted off a nearby rock, blinding her.
“Kat, no. Come on.”
The world faded into darkness.
Warm lips pressed against hers, and air that tasted like honey and nuts streamed down her throat. Her chest expanded with a sharp pain, and Kathy blinked opened her eyes, gasping. Above her, set against a sky as blue as Jason’s eyes, a thin white cloud darted through the treetops.
Thick fingers probed her arms, legs. Crawled across her back and down her spine. Jason flicked his gaze across her face, trying to mask feelings he could no longer hide. "Can you move?"
"Yeah. I think so." She lifted a hand still stinging with scrapes, and touched his face. "If you can give me a little time."
He caught her hand and after a brief hesitation, squeezed it. "As much as you need. I'm not going anywhere."