La Sua Bella Mente

Epilogue: His Beautiful Mind

Date: September 11, 2015

Starting Location: Asheville, North Carolina

Destination: The Future

Total Trip Miles: Just Beginning

EPOV

"Dad! Dad!" My daughter's loud voice echoes down the hallway. "Siler needs your help," she announces, bursting into the bedroom. "He got into the stuff on the bookshelves in the library and some of it fell off."

"Ally Rose. What have we said about using inside and outside voices?" My eight-year-old mini-me has the grace to look apologetic for a fleeting second.

"Sorry, Dad," she manages to mutter before her younger brother follows her into the room.

"It is a physical impossibility to get into stuff on a bookshelf," he says, frowning at his sister. "And one book fell off, not some," he continues before turning to me. "Sorry, Father."

"No problem, buddy," I reassure him. "What do you have there?" I ask, motioning to the large book he's trying to carry. "Ally, help your brother," I add.

She takes the heavy book from his arms, and once again, I marvel at the differences in my two children.

Alice Marie Rose didn't cry when she was born––she screamed. She was loud, rambunctious, and full of energy. It was months before she slept all night. Bella and I existed in a semi-zombie state for weeks until I insisted we hire a night nurse. My darling wife resisted, afraid it would make her look like a bad mother, but the prospect of a full night's sleep, and the argument that she would be rested and energized to spend all day with her new daughter, did the trick. Even after Ally started sleeping all night, Mrs. Cope stayed on. Four years later when Siler was born, she became a trusted nanny to our two children.

Siler was the complete opposite of his sister. Shy and retiring by nature, he inherited Bella's dark hair and large expressive eyes. It was those eyes that stared at me as I held my son only minutes after his birth. Those eyes that told me raising this little boy would be completely different from raising his sister. It was not without worry however. He rarely cried, and although able to communicate his needs with looks and gestures, he didn't speak until he was almost two.

Bella said he didn't need to speak––Ally Rose did all his talking for him. Then one day, he spoke––in complete sentences, with proper grammar and a stubborn refusal to use contractions. Each word was clear, distinct, and pronounced with a slight English accent. We could only guess he picked that up from being around Daniel so much.

"Is that an old photo album?" I ask after taking the book from Ally.

"Yes, Father," Siler answers. "Can you remind me who some of these people are?"

Crouching down to his level, I study the serious face of my son. "You worried about tomorrow, Siler?"

"A little," he admits.

"It's okay to be nervous, and you know you don't have to do this. Everyone will understand if it feels too big or too scary."

"But Mr. Daniel and Mr. Ron asked me to be the ring bearer."

"Yes, they asked because it's a special day for them, and they want you to be part of it. That's why they won't be upset if you decide you don't want to."

"Because they love me?"

"Yes. It's your decision, son."

"Can we look at the photos first before I decide?"

"Sure." Settling on the floor, I heft the large album onto my lap and smile when I see the title and dates on the cover.

Appalachian Trail

March 11, 2003 - September 12, 2003

Siler sits beside me, leaning against my left side. Both children have seen this album before, particularly Ally, who loves looking at old photos of the women she's named for. That's why I'm surprised when my normally restless, can't-sit-still daughter joins me on my right.

She grins at my questioning glance. "I want to see it again, too. It's a good story."

"It is," I agree before opening to the first page. Springer Mountain, Georgia is written at the top. There are several photos looking down into the green valleys below the summit. An older, middle-aged couple smile at the camera in two of them.

"Who are those people?" Siler asks. "Should I recognize them?"

"That's Dreamer and Allday, two people your mother met on the day she started hiking. She took those two pictures, and they took the others. When their hike was over, they sent these copies to us. And no, Siler, you've never met them."

"Will they be at the wedding tomorrow?"

"Yes, they'll be there. They're part of our little hiking family."

"She's the one who gave Mother her trailname," Ally adds, leaning across me to tell Siler. "She thought Mom said Rella instead of Bella, like in Cinderella."

"And then she named me Mr. Easy," I add. "Because your Uncle Jake was mad at me and put rocks in my backpack, and it wasn't easy to carry them."

"But you should have been called Prince Charming, like in the fairy tale," my daughter continues. "Look," she says, already jumping to another topic. "There's Uncle Jasper and Uncle Emmett standing behind Mother."

Bella had not been aware of it at the time, but Dreamer had snapped several photos of her as she stood on the summit. One of those had captured Jasper and Emmett in the background as they prepared to leave.

"Why does Mother look so sad," Siler whispers, examining the photo more closely.

"She was upset with me," I tell him. "You know how we've always told you to talk and share your feelings so there are no misunderstandings? Well," I continue after he nods, "I forgot to share things with your mother, and the misunderstandings made her sad."

"Oh," he says wide-eyed at my confession. "Then you weren't really a Prince Charming."

"No, I wasn't." I chuckle at his observation. "Your mother didn't need a Prince Charming to rescue her though. She's the one who rescued me."

I continue to turn the pages while my children look at the photos, pointing out and discussing places they've been to or heard us talk about. Bella has labeled most of the photos, adding short notes describing what she did or saw. Most of the early pictures were taken by Dreamer and Alice. Bella added a few later after I was released from the hospital.

"There is Uncle Jacob's store at Neels Gap, and Great-grandmother Higginbotham's backpack hanging on the wall." Siler leans over, examining the photos more closely. "I like his store, Father."

My son has always been fascinated by Mountain Crossings. If we'd let him, he'd spend hours examining the merchandise sold there.

"When will Uncle Jake, Aunt Leah, and Seth and Sam get here?" Ally asks.

"Sometime this afternoon. Did you help your mother get their rooms ready?"

"Yes, sir," she answers. "And I picked up all the toys around the pool, too."

"Thank you, Ally. That was a nice thing to do."

My daughter grins back at me, her dark-green eyes sparkling. "But Mama says you have to clean it and do the chemicals."

"Then we should hurry up and look at the rest of the pictures." I chuckle.

~*LSBM*~

After I was released from the hospital in Gainesville, my parents, Bella, and I flew back to New York. We spent the next two months taking care of all the business details that had been put on hold when Bella and I left. One of the first things Bella did was give Eric and Tyler each a ten-percent share in the company. Then, she lured Angela away from her law firm with a generous salary and a ten-percent share. I became the CEO but Bella was the brains behind the organization and the single largest shareholder.

We were excited about moving from New York and eagerly began researching sites in and around northern Georgia. We finally settled on Asheville, North Carolina. The weather, the thriving art scene, and the proximity to a wide variety of outdoor activities made the town of 89,000 a perfect choice. With several colleges and universities in the area, we were guaranteed a skilled labor force when we began expanding. That expansion came quickly.

We signed a very lucrative contract with Volturi Banking the week after we returned. I speculated that Demetri wanted to forestall any legal actions I might take against him and his niece.

Jane was arrested. Her assets were seized, and eventually, through a long, drawn-out plea bargain, everything was sold to reimburse the people she cheated. The rest of her family distanced themselves from her, and she was sentenced to fifteen years in federal prison. Although Bella and I were both questioned and gave statements about our interactions with her, neither of us had to see her again. She was not missed.

Before I left New York to find Bella, Angela and I met with representatives of the US Military. The war with Iraq had highlighted the need for better computer security. They turned to our company for help. Suddenly, we had more work and more contracts than we could handle. We hired staff, then hired more staff.

Although I wanted her to, Bella refused to share an apartment with me in Asheville. In one of our long talks during my convalescence, she made it clear our relationship was going to change. She wanted to be wooed, to date in the way normal couples would date. She wanted the hearts and flowers, the candy and wine, the casual suppers and the dressy dinners. She wanted to learn ballroom dancing, and she wanted to teach me how to two-step. Some weekends, I planned our activities, on others she took the initiative. We explored the area around our new home, and then––when my leg was properly healed and strong enough––we began doing short weekend hikes on the Appalachian Trail.

"Look." I point to a photo of a wide-open grassy meadow. "This is the top of Max Patch. Your mother and I hiked up one evening. The wind was blowing so hard we couldn't keep the tent up, so we cowboy camped under the stars."

"Did you get cold?" Siler asks.

"A little but it was beautiful. We watched the full moon come up, and then the fireflies came out and danced for us." My memories include another type of mating dance on top of Max Patch, but I don't share those with my children.

"Fireflies are awesome," my son whispers.

"I like this one," Ally declares, indicating another photo. "Mom is feeding the wild ponies."

"That's Grayson Highlands in Virginia. Some people think it looks like the Scottish moors. We thought you and Siler might like to go next month when the weather gets cooler. They have lots of fireflies there, too," I add, smiling at my son.

"Oh, look at this one," he says. "It looks like a flying saucer taking off. See," he adds, pointing to the curving ramp leading up to the observation deck on top of Clingman's Dome in the Smokies. "These are the centrifugal force lines. If they kept going around and around and faster and faster, it would just whoosh, pop up into the air." My son illustrates his words by spinning his arms around and around before throwing them up into the air. For a fleeting moment, I see the serious science professor he will probably grow up to be, but then he giggles, and he's my little boy again.

I turn the page, and there we all are.

One weekend toward the end of June, Bella surprised me with a much longer road trip. This time, we drove to Harpers Ferry. The historic town at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers is considered to be the halfway point of the Appalachian Trail. It's also home to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to managing the trail.

We drove to the historic rock building housing the organization's offices, and standing there in front getting their photos made for the 1,000 miles thru-hiker album, were the six people who saved my life on that cold snowy day outside Franklin.

Although we had been in touch by email and the occasional phone call, I hadn't seen any of them in almost three months. Except for Ghost and M&M, I really didn't know the girls or Curly Dan and No Filter. I barely remembered them through the haze of pain and confusion. There were hugs, tears, slaps on the back, talk, and more talk. Bella had managed to book rooms at a nearby hotel. We checked in, cleaned up, and explored the small town.

My children examine the photos taken during that three-day reunion. No Filter has kept his head shaved, but his mustache is longer and drooping below his chin. Dan has hair again, and it's curly. Jasper and Emmett are both sporting beards. Rose's hair is longer and in braids, but Alice has kept hers short. Everyone is much thinner than they are now.

"They look so different," Ally says.

"Where are Dreamer and Allday?" Siler asks. "I thought you said they were part of the hiker family."

"Oh, they are," I reassure him before turning the next few pages. "They hiked in just before we left." The last photos are taken in front of the headquarters as we were saying goodbye. The older couple are with us, grinning as they have their picture made for the halfway mark.

Bella and I met our friends several more times during their journey to Katahdin. Each visit is captured in the pictures, carefully labeled and preserved in the album we study.

The only train station on the AT is located just north of Pawling, New York. All four couples caught it one weekend and met us in New York City. We invaded my parents' home, the laundry and showers in almost constant use. To thank them for their hospitality, No Filter cooked dinner one night. It was a four-course feast complete with wine, coffee, and digestifs. My parents were so impressed they began serious discussions about helping him open a restaurant. His successful restaurants in New York and Asheville are the result of that collaboration.

It was cold and rainy the day we met them on Mt. Washington. Bella and I opted to ride the cog railway to the top rather than risk the sometimes-dangerous hike up the mountain. Siler leans closer to the photos, carefully examining the train and it's trailing plume of black smoke. "I want to ride that someday, please."

"It was fun," I tell him. "Especially when the hikers we passed dropped their pants and mooned the train."

Confused, Siler frowns at me, and I can't help but chuckle. "I'm sorry, son, your mother will probably be upset with me for telling you about mooning. When someone bends over and sticks their bare bottom up, it's called mooning. And it's a tradition for the hikers to moon the people riding in the train as it goes by."

I'm not surprised when Ally starts giggling so hard she can barely sit up. "Mooning," she gasps. "Bare bottoms are moons."

Siler just frowns and shakes his head. "That is disgusting!"

"You're right, son, it is. Now let's get back to the pictures and the story. Uncle Jake and his family will be here soon. I'm sure the boys will want to get into the pool. And, by the way, not a word to your mother about mooning." Siler solemnly nods. I know he'll never say a word, but the glint in Ally's eyes tells me I may be in trouble.

I turn the pages, describing to my children the pictures taken by Alice at places along the trail. Mountain views, rivers, streams, a few photos of shelters, both new and old. In some pictures, they are carefully crossing streams, hip-deep in the rushing water. Sometimes, the trail is cut logs crossing a swampy, boggy area; in others, it crosses wide-open mountain summits.

She's documented their hours' long, torturous journey through the boulder-strewn, infamous Mahoosuc Notch in Maine. Just looking at them brings back memories of my painful fall.

There's a sign announcing the start of the Hundred Mile Wilderness. It warns hikers to enter only if they are prepared and carrying enough food for ten days. Alice included photos of wildlife they encountered: a moose or two, birds, snakes, and even a black bear. As the weeks and months pass and they travel north, spring turns to humid summer, and summer to magnificent fall. The lush forest greens change to reds and yellows, oranges and gold. Our friends traveled from winter to spring, from summer to fall.

And then they arrived at Baxter State Park in Maine.

As soon as the doctor declared my leg well enough to resume normal activities, my goal had been to rebuild my strength and fitness levels to the point I'd be able to climb Katahdin. Under a therapist's guidance, I worked hard, knowing the ascent of that northern mountain would probably be the physically hardest thing I'd ever done. And it was.

Our friends arrived the evening of September 10th. We were waiting for them in the two shelters we'd reserved. We partied late, eating, drinking, talking, and listening to the stories of their great adventure. I watched Bella as we sat around the campfire. Although she was delighted for our friends, I knew there was still a part of her that envied their hike. I saw regret, disappointment, longing, and a yearning for the freedom of the trail. I vowed someday we would make the journey together.

Two years later, I kept that vow. After our wedding on Granny Higginbotham's front porch and leaving our business under Angela's competent management, we left Springer and made our way north to Katahdin, celebrating our wedding with a six-month long honeymoon hike.

~*LSBM*~

It took almost five hours to reach the famous sign at the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. The dirt pathway gradually changed to a steep rock climb. In some places, foot and handholds made of steel rebar were drilled into the sheer cliff face. In others, the men formed a chain, passing and hauling the shorter women over rocks taller than they were. We pulled, pushed, and scrambled our way to the top.

The weather was perfect. The sky a crystalline blue, dotted here and there with pure white clouds. Below us, forests and mountains painted in the glorious hues of autumn stretched as far as we could see, broken only by the shimmer of small lakes and ponds.

There was a sense of awe, an almost reverence, as we approached the iconic sign. We touched it, each person wrapped in their quiet thoughts as they reached the long-sought goal. Dreamer had a small pebble she picked up and carried with her all the way from Springer. Physically exhausted and overwhelmed at the completion of her journey, she broke down and cried when she added it to the rock cairns near the sign.

Then it was picture time. Alice and Dreamer took photos of each person, then each couple, then the group as a whole. There was a moment of silence for Rock Dancer when No Filter and Curly Dan placed his memorial stone near the last white blaze at the base of the sign.

"Why is Uncle Emmett down on his knee?" Siler asks, pointing to one of the last pictures on the page. "Did he fall?"

Before I can answer, Ally explains. "No, he's proposing to Aunt Rose. When a man wants a woman to marry him, he gets down on one knee and asks her."

We were gathering our things, getting ready to start the long descent back to the shelters, when Emmett surprised us all by dropping to one knee and asking Rose to marry him. Over the months of the hike, their relationship had advanced from penpals to lovers, but no one suspected how serious their love had become. When a shocked Rose gasped out a tearful "Yes", Emmett pulled out a ring made from duct tape, wire, and a bright yellow M&M candy. At their marriage six months later, he presented her with a more permanent version fashioned from platinum and a large yellow diamond.

I knew Rose still kept the original ring preserved in a small cube of clear resin. It sat in a place of honor beside their official wedding picture on a shelf in her law office in Blowing Rock, North Carolina where they moved as soon as Emmett finished his medical studies. Their oldest son, Henry, was Ally's best friend.

Alice and Jasper settled there, too. Attracted to the small town and its beautiful surroundings, she eventually went to work with Emmett. His dream to provide affordable, quality healthcare to his childhood community a true success story. Their twin girls inherited Jasper's blond looks and Alice's love of the water. I knew they would be in the pool just as soon as they arrived.

Jasper stayed true to his dream of teaching art. After completing his educational training, he joined the faculty at the small local school, teaching 7th through 12th grade art classes. His paintings were exhibited in an art gallery on the city square and were beginning to attract attention from galleries as far away as Los Angeles and New York. Once a week, he drove to Asheville to teach an art class to local veterans.

"I can't wait until Aunt Rose gets here tomorrow," Ally interrupts my memories. "Henry is going to teach me how to do a somersault off the diving board."

"Not without an adult watching," I warn my water-loving daughter. "You and Henry are still too young to be in the pool by yourselves."

"I know, Dad," she replies before jumping up and running from the room when the doorbell rings.

"That's probably Uncle Jake and his family," I explain to Siler as I stand. "I need to help them with the suitcases and get them settled. Will you be okay?"

Siler is still studying the last of the photos in the album, but he glances up and nods before returning to the pictures. "Your mom should be here pretty soon, buddy." This time he smiles at me before turning his attention back to the images.

SPOV

There are only a few more pages of photos in the album. They show Father and Mother and their friends hiking back down the mountain and then saying goodbye the next day. All of them will be here tomorrow when Mr. Ron and Mr. Daniel get married. Other people will be here, too, especially for the party afterward. Some are friends from the college where Mr. Daniel teaches, and some will be from Mr. Ron's restaurants. Grandmother Esme and Grandfather Carlisle will be here, too.

I think about all the people who are coming—some old, some young, some I know, some I don't know—and I think about standing in front of all of them, holding the small pillow with the rings on it.

"Siler." Mother sits on the floor beside me. "What are you thinking about?"

"Circles, rings," I answer. "May I show you?"

Mother walks to her desk and returns with a pad of paper and some colored pencils. When she sits back down beside me, I crawl onto her lap, leaning back against her. She smells good, like she always does. I feel safe in the circle of her arms when she wraps them around my waist.

Picking up the green pencil, I draw a circle in the center of the page. "This is me," I explain. Then I make another circle in red that overlaps my green one, and a blue circle that touches both. "This is you and Father. The yellow one is Ally." I continue to draw. "Here is Uncle Emmett, Aunt Rose, and Henry. Then Uncle Jasper, Aunt Alice, and their daughters." The circles overlap as I continue to draw and list the people. "Uncle Jake and his family, Dreamer and Allday, Grandmother Esme and Grandfather Carlisle." Soon the whole page is covered in interlocking circles and shapes.

"Do you know what you've drawn?" Mother asks.

"No. Does it have a name?"

"Yes. It's called the Flower of Life, and some people believe it symbolizes the creation of all things." Picking up one of my pencils, Mother begins to draw lines connecting points where the circles overlap. "You can find all five of the Platonic solids within the circles. Cubes, and tetrahedrons, and octahedrons." She names them as they take form within the circles I've formed. "Dodecahedrons and icosahedrons."

I whisper the names to myself, liking the way the letters and sounds roll around in my head and on my tongue.

"I'd like to know what it represents to you, Siler," Mother speaks, interrupting my thoughts.

Mother waits patiently while I stare at the paper in front of me. She never tries to hurry me, always giving me the time I need to think. Her long braid is draped over her shoulder, and I wrap one hand around it, rubbing its silky softness between my fingers.

"I think it shows how I am a part of everything and everyone," I finally tell her. "And I think it is pretty, too," I add, glancing up at her with a grin.

"I do, too." Mother plants a kiss on my head before lifting me to my feet. "How do you feel about tomorrow?"

"Good. I am not worried anymore, and Father says I look very handsome in my suit and tie."

Mother's laugh is happy, and I smile at her. She leans over and picks me up, settling me on her hip. "Oh," she groans. "You're getting way too big for me to carry." As we start out the door, she adds, "You should share your circles with Uncle Jasper. I bet he can show you how to color them and make them even prettier."

~*LSBM*~

Date: March 11, 2035

Starting Location: Springer Mountain, Georgia

Destination: Unknown

Total Trip Miles: 0

SPOV

The rocky lookout point at the edge of the mountain is still there. I stand, staring out at the misty blue hills in the distance and the green valleys below. Mother and Father are beside me. His arm is wrapped around her shoulders as he hugs her close to him, reminding her of the time he stood here all alone and wished he could turn back time.

"If you could really time travel, would you go back and change anything?" he asks her.

She shakes her head, smiling at his teasing face. "No. It's been an amazing life. I have an amazing husband, two amazing kids, and an amazing grandchild on the way. I'm very happy with the way things turned out."

"You're amazing." I hear him whisper before he presses his lips to her forehead.

I look away, giving them a bit of privacy. My parents have always been affectionate, their deep love and appreciation for each other apparent to everyone. Although Mother just turned fifty-six and Father is now sixty, they're still healthy and active. The lines on their faces are just evidence of a happy life––well-lived and well-loved. Even though Father sports a few gray hairs at his temples, they only make him look more distinguished. Mother's long dark braid, that I loved so much as a child, was cut long ago, but her hair is still as dark and thick as it was when she was younger.

This isn't the first time I've stood in this spot. Four years ago when my sister, Ally, and her new husband, Henry, started their honeymoon hike, all my extended family gathered to see them off. Their first child, my niece Isabelle, will be born two months from now.

My cousins, Sam and Seth Black, made the hike with them. Their humorous, often awkward account of accompanying an amorous, newly-wed couple on the trail had turned into a best-selling novel. They were currently hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and busy taking notes for their next book.

I'm brought back to the present when Mother reminds me to sign the register. When I reach the rock that houses it, a young woman is sitting there writing. She glances up at me, and I feel an instant shock of recognition even though I know I've never seen her before. Perhaps it's because she has the same dark hair and skin tone as my mother.

"Osiyo Uwoduhi," I whisper to myself because she is very beautiful.

A startled look passes across her face, and her eyes widen in surprise. "Wado," she replies. Now I'm the one staring in surprise when she thanks me in Cherokee.

Collecting myself after several awkward moments, I hold out my hand. "Siler Cullen."

"Rachel Lahote," she replies, standing to take my hand in hers. She doesn't shake it, just holds it while we stare at each other.

"Do you, uh … Do you have a trailname yet?" I finally manage to stutter.

"My father, Paul, calls me his little flower, so I thought I would use that nickname, Atsilvsgi."

"Ou-woh-dub-hee ah-chee-luns-gee," I slowly pronounce it, changing it to "beautiful flower." Rachel flashes me a smile, a slight blush spreading across her cheeks, before she asks if I have a trailname.

"No, I thought I'd let the trail give me a name."

She nods. "So you're hiking north?"

"All the way to Katahdin."

"Me, too," she whispers before handing me the register. "I'm finished. You should sign it so we can get started."

I scrawl my name under hers, then hug my parents one last time. Mother has tears in her eyes when she tells me to be careful but have fun. When I reach out to shake Father's hand, he pulls me into a crushing bear hug. With a glance toward Rachel and a knowing wink, he lets me go but not before reminding me to remember everything I've been taught about the woods.

Hefting my backpack, I take my first steps on the Appalachian Trail. Just before it makes a sharp turn, I look back at my parents one last time. They're still standing at the edge of the lookout point. Behind them, the ancient hills, ridges, and forests of the Appalachian Mountains stretch out until they disappear into the distant horizon. They were formed long before I was born and will exist long after I'm gone. I see the past, the present, and the future just waiting to be explored and experienced.

With one last wave to the man and woman who gave me life, I turn and walk north, following spring on the Appalachian Trail.

.

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Much love and appreciation to Sally and Ipsita for their help and support with this story. Thanks to everyone who took this journey with me.

Janet

xxx