Dala Horse Inn
Ellen Jenkins © 2017
All Rights Reserved
Tilde stood at the sink in her empty kitchen, scrubbing dishes on autopilot while she watched the snowstorm outside. The light from inside cast an orange glow on the swirling snow. It was entrancing to watch, and she was too exhausted to stay focused on the dishes. The sooner they were done, the sooner she could sleep, but the water in the sink was already turning cold. She forced herself to look away from the snow for a moment to give the brittle old plate in her hand a last rinse, the water washing away the soap to reveal a farm scene painted in blue on the porcelain. Tilde set the plate in the drying rack carefully, so that it didn’t bump too harshly against the rest of the plates already drying there, and reached into the water to pull the plug.
The sink drained slowly. She needed to take another look at the pipes once her family left and things settled down. There wouldn’t be any guests for the week after New Year’s, and she would be able to fix up the Dala Horse Inn in peace.
Tilde dried off her hands on the towel hanging from the front of the oven and yawned, jaw popping, blinking out at the swirling snow. In the distance, light moved, illuminating more of the storm. Tilde leaned forward over the sink and tried to see the source of the light. It might be one of the neighbor’s boys on a snowmobile, but that would be reckless bordering on stupid in this weather.
It wandered out of view from the window above the sink, disappearing again into the storm. Tilde walked to another window and jumped in surprise when the light reappeared much closer, driving down the road to the inn.
Tilde hurried to the kitchen’s outside door and crammed her bare feet into the spare pair of snowshoes she kept there for emergencies. Her coat was hanging on the rack by the door, still a little cold from the last time she’d been outside, and she pulled it on over her apron before pushing out into the night.
It was bitterly cold outside the safety of the inn. Tilde shoved her hands deep into her pockets and hurried through the deep, fluffy snow toward the parking lot. Tilde swore as some spilled into her shoes, melting against her bare skin.
The car pulled into the last free parking spot. Tilde hurried over, struggling against the falling snow. The closer she got, the more familiar the car was. All the family members had already arrived, though, so it couldn’t be anyone who was supposed to be here.
The silence when the engine turned off was overwhelming, the snow swallowing all ambient noise.
“I’m terribly sorry, but the inn is full,” Tilde called.
The door to the car was pushed open, sticking a little in the cold, and a tall familiar figure climbed out. It was dark out in the snow, but Tilde would recognize Emma anywhere.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Tilde demanded and blushed crimson. Emma always made her nervous, and Tilde ended up saying the rudest things. She tried to be nicer, but Emma seemed to delight in her rudeness, and Tilde had no idea what the rules were with friends with benefits. Emma was the first one she’d ever had. Before she could apologize, though, Emma was speaking.
“Tilde! I’m so glad you’re awake. I thought for sure you’d be asleep at this hour. Any chance I could stay for the night until the storm passes?”
“The inn is full,” Tilde repeated. It was a family holiday reunion. Every guest room had a relative in it, ready to judge how she was running the inn after the passing of her grandfather. She hadn’t had the heart to ask any of her staff to stay on for the holidays when they had families of their own to attend to, so she was running the whole operation herself.
“I don’t mind sharing.” Emma grinned, and Tilde was helpless to that smile that promised wicked, wonderful things.
“My family’s all here,” Tilde tried again, half-convincing herself. The anxiety of trying to run the inn perfectly was giving way to those Emma-related butterflies in her stomach.
“I’ll be gone before anyone wakes up,” Emma promised. “My headlights aren’t enough to keep driving in this snow, I can barely see.”
Tilde really didn’t want to see her injured. She gave in to the desire to be around Emma. Maybe a little relaxation would make the rest of this week easier to handle.
“Come on in.” Tilde sighed.
“You’re a lifesaver,” Emma said, pulling a backpack out of the passenger seat and locking up the car.
“I didn’t think you’d be back until the summer,” Tilde said. The tension in her body was melting away just from having Emma around.
“One of the ranchers I work with called. Turns out her dog dug up a fossil and has been running around with it. It freaked out her husband, and she didn’t want any conflict before Christmas, so she asked us to come pick it up.”
They walked back toward the inn. The Christmas lights were on, little points of white light outlining the old building. Her grandpa had designed and built it to look like his childhood home in Sweden, but big enough to be a fully functioning inn. The red paint was bright against the snow, even in the darkness. Pride swelled in Tilde’s chest at the sight, as it always did. The forest around them was dense and the Dala Horse Inn stood like an oasis of warmth in the winter.
“You drove all the way here for one fossil?” Tilde asked. It was a good six-hour drive out here from the city when it wasn’t snowing.
“I’ve done dumber shit than drive through a winter storm for a fossil.” Emma laughed. Tilde rolled her eyes, remembering all the summer days Emma had arrived at the inn injured after a fall at the dig site. “And we wanted to know where the dog found the fossil so we can look there in the summer. If we waited too long, the rancher might not remember exactly where it was. It was supposed to be a day trip, but then they invited me for dinner, and by the time I was leaving, the sun was already setting.”
Tilde let them back in through the kitchen door, stomped the snow off her boots, and shoved her coat back onto the hanger. Emma followed suit, though she struggled with the laces of her shoes, fingers clumsy with the cold.
In the light of the kitchen, Tilde could see that Emma had just as many freckles now as she did in the summer. She wondered if they ever went away.
Emma got her shoes off and wiggled her toes in the warmth of the kitchen air.
“Oh, that’s nice.” She sighed, eyes closing as she basked in the heat.
Tilde’s ears turned pink. She walked over to pantry to keep herself from staring at Emma.
“Do you need food?” Tilde asked, falling back on her routine. Grandpa had always offered guests food, no matter the hour.
“The rancher fed me so much I think I might die if I eat more,” Emma said. Somehow it sounded like an apology.
“What about something to drink?” There was some glögg she’d made up yesterday as a test run before anyone arrived. She’d need to make another batch soon.
“I can’t say no to that,” Emma said. Tilde pulled the half-full bottle out and poured it into a saucepan to heat up on the stove. Emma came over and sniffed it, hip- bumping casually against Tilde’s. “What is this?”
“Glögg,” Tilde said. “Family recipe.”
“What’s in it?”
“Port, whiskey, rum, and spices.”
“Jesus,” Emma said. “I’ll have a whole mug of it.”
Tilde laughed. “It’ll be better once it’s warm, give it a few minutes.”
Emma jumped up to sit on the counter next to the stove, her feet swinging off the edge. Tilde would yell at anyone else for doing that, but from Emma, it was endearing. At least she was cleaner now than she usually was after coming in from a dig site. She was used to Emma tracking mud all around the inn when she first arrived. All the paleontologists who came to the inn were covered in dirt when they arrived, usually fighting over dibs on the showers and eager to be clean for the first time in days.
Emma was tired and seemed content to savor the warmth of the kitchen.
“I didn’t think I’d see you until next summer,” Tilde said, trying to keep Emma awake.
“I was happy when the boss asked if anyone would be willing to come pick up the fossil.” Emma smiled a small soft grin. Tilde’s heart did something funny in her chest.