Twenty Years Later
I picked my way along the Bright Angel Trail, descending deeper into the Grand Canyon with every step.
But I couldn’t just focus on my own footing. I had others to worry about, too.
“Maisie!” I snapped. “Thomas! I told you to be careful!”
Maise and Thomas had taken a shortcut on the switchbacks, cutting straight down the cliff face to the next ledge. IT wasn’t a particularly dangerous part of the trail, and if one of them had slipped they only would have fallen five feet. But the Grand Canyon wasn’t the kind of place where you let your guard down, even in the easy section.
Thomas, who was eleven, turned to look up at me. “I was being careful,” he whined.
In front of me, Riley shook his head. “Listen to your mother. She knows best.”
“Why does she know best?” asked Maisie, our sixteen-year old. Her tone dripped with teenage angst. “You’re the Park Ranger, dad.”
“Yeah, well, I know best too,” Riley replied. “And I agree with her. You’re not supposed to cut the trail, whether it’s dangerous or not.”
“If you do it again, we’re going to turn around,” he said in his best Dad Voice. “I bet you don’t want to climb back up to the rim when we’re so close to the river.”
“We’re close?” Thomas suddenly chirped up. “How close? I can’t hear the river yet.” He squinted ahead of us as if he could see it if only he tried hard enough.
“We’re actually entering a really exciting part of the canyon,” Harper said from the front of the group. His red hair was thinning with age, but his freckles still danced on his cheeks when he grinned excitedly. “We call this the prairie section, and there’s a lot of diverse wildlife. If you look carefully, you might see a rattlesnake.”
“Rattlesnake!” Thomas said. “Where? Is that one?”
“No, that’s just a stick. Look for round holes along the trail…”
Maisie and Thomas followed close behind Harper as we descended into the flatter section of the canyon. I paused and glanced behind me, where Logan was taking up the rear. He was letting his black beard grow out for the winter, and he moved slower than the rest of us. Not because his pack was the most heavy, but because it was the most precious.
At the top of his pack, peeking over his shoulder, was baby Logan Jr. He was secured in a special baby-carrying backpack that was full of cushions and even had a small umbrella to keep the sun off his sensitive head.
My heart swelled the way it did every time I looked at the two of them. There was nothing sexier in the world than a man carrying a baby.
“How’s my special little man doing?” I asked.
“I’m doing great,” Logan said. “Thanks for checking up on me!”
I rolled my eyes. “I was talking about Junior.” I pinched his pudgy little arm and he giggled happily.
“He’s as happy as newly-adopted pup. Lots of baby talk while he looks around.”
“I’d be happy too if someone was carrying me,” I said.
Logan grunted. “Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve carried a grown-ass woman out of the canyon.”
Up ahead, Thomas stopped in his tracks. “Dad said a bad word!”
“Shut up, fart-face,” Maisie said. “All he said was ass.”
Thomas gasped, then pointed at his sister. “She said a bad word too!”
“You shut up!”
I glared at Logan. “Look what you started.”
“I didn’t think they could hear me all the way up there.”
“Sound echoes,” Harper said. “The acoustics in the canyon are incredible in certain places. In fact, there’s a spot near the rim where you can whisper and be heard all the way across…”
“How was I supposed to know sound echoes?” Logan mumbled.
“Yeah, it’s not like you’ve worked in the canyon for a quarter of a century!” I said.
Riley roared with laughter.
Despite the banter and arguing among my first two children, we were happy. Incredibly, stupendously, lovingly happy. Happier than anyone else I knew. If I could go back in time twenty years and tell the younger version of myself how things would turn out, I wouldn’t have believed it. How could a relationship like this last, with three men sharing one woman?
But somehow it was perfect for us. We may have had our ups and downs over the years, but our love always stayed strong. Riley, Harper, Logan, and I were soulmates. We were meant to be together.
We hiked through the flatter part of the canyon, the prairie section, before reaching the inner canyon. As soon as we heard the roar of the Colorado River, Thomas started shouting excitedly and pointing. When I reached his spot by the edge we were all speechless. Especially Thomas and Maisie.
“I remember the first time I hiked down to the river,” I said. “I was speechless too.”
Thomas blinked. “The canyon was around when you were young?”
“The Grand Canyon is billions of years old,” I said dryly.
Thomas kept staring up at me.
“I’m not that old!” I exclaimed.
Harper snickered. Riley covered his mouth.
“You’re super old,” Thomas said.
Harper and Riley laughed even harder.
“You know what?” I asked. “I don’t think there’s enough room for everyone in the cabins. You’re going to have to sleep outside tonight.”
That quieted Thomas.
We snaked our way down the inner canyon to the river, crossing at the Silver Bridge. After a quick break to take photos, we continued the rest of the way north until we reached the Phantom Ranch. Instead of going to our cabins we went straight to the Phantom Ranch Canteen to get some food.
“We’re the first ones here,” Logan said as we walked inside. “Nice.”
“Never in doubt, even with precious cargo,” Harper said. “You going to gloat when she gets here?”
Logan grunted. Of course he was going to gloat.
The smell of grilled meat and spices filled the air. I felt my mouth watering immediately. All I had eaten since we left this morning was trail mix. I was ready for a real meal.
The door to the kitchen opened and out walked Bubba. But not the Bubba who had worked at the Canteen for decades. His son, Bubba Jr, who went by BJ. He was your typical teenager, tall and lanky and still growing into his body. He had a tray of food in his hand, which he carried out and placed on a table.
“Hey y’all. Dad says the food’ll be ready soon, but we’ve got appetizers to hold you over.”
“Sliders!” Riley said. “I could eat a dozen of these.”
“Hey, BJ,” Maisie said shyly.
“Oh. Um. Hiya, Maze.”
“Working with your dad over the break?”
BJ awkwardly scratched the back of his neck. “Um. Yeah, I am. Just until school’s open again. How was the hike?”
Logan stepped up next to Maisie like a bodyguard. “The hike was fine, BJ.” He gestured. “I bet your dad needs help with the food.”
“Oh. Um. Yes sir, I reckon he does.”
“Better go on then,” Logan said in a deep voice.
BJ gave Maisie another awkward smile then hurried back into the kitchen.
“Dad,” Maisie said. “Why do you always have to do that?”
“Do what?” Logan asked innocently.
Maisie let out an annoyed noise and went to sit down.
“What? I’m just having some fun.” Logan looked at me. “I can’t go easy on him. Not if he’s going to flirt with my daughter.”
Biologically, Maisie was Harper’s daughter. But blood didn’t matter as much as the family unit itself. All the children belonged to each of the guys, and they were all dad to Maisie and Thomas. And they would be to Logan Jr, when he was old enough to talk.
The door to the Canteen opened and Sandy rushed inside, out of breath. “No! I was sure we would beat you this time!”
Sandy’s husband stepped up behind her, red-faced and tired. “Aw, man. Too bad.”
Logan walked over and grinned widely. “Not only did we win, we did so with a train of kids to protect. And one on my back.” He gestured over his shoulder. “Maybe next time, kiddo.”
He held out his fist, and Sandy begrudgingly bumped it. “Yeah, yeah,” she muttered, then gave Logan a hug.
“Good to see you, Logan!” Sandy’s husband held out his fist, but Logan just stared without bumping it. After a few seconds, he rushed to go sit next to Sandy at the table.
“What?” Logan said when I glared at him. “She’s like a sister to me. I’ve got to look out for her, too.”
“They’ve been married for eight years,” I pointed out. “Sandy is in her thirties now.”
“All the more reason to have her back,” he insisted.
Riley appeared next to me and handed me a frosty beer glass. “Remember the first time the four of us were here? Twenty years ago?”
“I do,” I said. “Bubba made steak and potatoes. I’ve never tasted a meal so delicious in my life.”
Riley gave me a funny look. “Actually, I meant what else happened twenty years ago. Not in the canteen. In the cabin.”
I felt my cheeks redden at the memory. “I seem to remember something, yes,” I said while casually sipping my beer.
Thomas suddenly asked, “What’d you do in the cabin, mom?”
I whirled around. He was standing right behind me, cocking his head in a curious way. “Nothing,” I told him.
“Dad made it sound like it was something,” he insisted. “What’d you do in the cabin? Tell me!”
“I, uh…” I looked around at my three men for help. Riley sipped his beer and backed away slowly. Logan started laughing.
Bubba chose that moment to rescue me. He came barging out of the kitchen and declared, “HARK, y’all hungry travelers! The feast is prepared!”
We all cheered as Bubba and BJ carried plates of food out of the kitchen. Every plate held a double-cheeseburger and enough French fries to sink a battleship.
“Y’all best appreciate the effort,” Bubba told us. “Frying oil ain’t easy to carry down the canyon, let me tell you!”
Thomas gazed at his plate. “Burgers? Mom said you made steak and potatoes the first time she hiked down here.”
“These ain’t just any cheeseburgers,” Bubba insisted. He rested his hands on his round belly, while BJ stood next to him proudly. “These are gourmet burgers made with aged asiago cheese, fresh ground mustard, and local applewood bacon, all on a Czech kolache bun.”
Thomas lifted his bun and squinted. “I like McDonald’s better.”
“McDonald’s?” Bubba sputtered. “Boy, you about to lose your eating privileges! If you don’t eat every tasty morsel of that fine sandwich I’m going to make you carry the spent fry oil out of the canyon!”
“Apologize, Thomas,” I said while trying not to laugh.
“I’m sorry,” he said gloomily while tasting a fry.
“That’s what I thought.” Bubba sat across from me and took a long pull of his beer. “Christie, you’re lookin’ finer than a Georgia peach.”
“I’m covered in sweat and grime,” I said. “You’re too kind.”
“You trying to steal her away from us?” Logan joked while spooning baby food into Logan Jr’s mouth.
“I see a beautiful woman, I have to give her some charm.” Bubba grinned at me. “Speaking of charm, or lack thereof, I saw a wedding announcement the other day. Fella by the name of Pierce.”
I nodded. “That’s right. My ex, Pierce, just got married.”
“That was fast. Didn’t he just get out of prison?” Bubba asked.
“It was actually five years ago,” I said.
“Six, I think,” Harper said.
I shrugged. “Either way, he’s out of prison and moving on with his life.”
“If it were up to me, he wouldn’t be doing anything,” Logan said quietly. “Isn’t that right, Junior? I’d leave him in the desert so the birds could get at him! Yes I would!”
“Birds?” Thomas chirped up.
I elbowed Logan and said, “Don’t worry about it, sweetie. Eat your burger.”
“I want to get a bird,” Maisie said to BJ, who was seated across from her. “I heard parakeets are really smart.”
“Woah, a parakeet. That would be so cool,” BJ replied.
Logan cleared his throat and glared at BJ. The boy quickly bent over his burger.
Bubba shook his head slowly. “He ever apologize to y’all? Pierce, I mean. For what he did?”
I scoffed. “Nope. Not even so much as a letter. Last I heard from him was, oh, twenty years ago. During the embezzlement trial.”
“What a low-life,” Bubba said. “I bet that rubs you the wrong way. Never gettin’ an apology.”
“You know what?” I said. “I don’t think about Pierce at all. I don’t have room for emotions related to him. Not when I have my family around me.”
Bubba pounded the table with a fist. “Girl, I’ll drink to that!”
We all laughed and clinked our glasses together while digging in.