The Runaway Wife - Elizabeth Birkelund

ONE

LA CABANE DES AUDANNES

JIM OLSEN, YOU ARE HERE. IN SWITZERLAND, WALKING on the rock ledges of the Swiss Alps. If this was not the end of the world, at least it felt like it. In this moonscape ten thousand feet high, in this land of rock and rock and more rock, and sky and sky and more sky, one misguided step and Jim could plunge from one of thousands of vertiginous, crusted cliffs. The only thing that reassured Jim that he was not on a planet in a far-flung galaxy was his ability, on this clear day, to pinpoint several small patches of green that resembled colored pieces in a stained-glass window—these he knew to be farmland in the Swiss valley far, far below.

Jim had expected a movie-set Alpine cabin flush with red and orange impatiens cascading from window boxes. Instead, La Cabane des Audannes was a squat tin box that resembled an abandoned trailer home in the Arctic. Six small square windows punctured the front of the shiny bubble. It was hard to believe that just a few days earlier, he and his college friend Ambrose had been enjoying chilled beer on a sunny veranda overlooking the lush lower Alpine meadows, with clanking bells on lolling cows as their background music.

Back in New York City, when he had searched the cabin’s website, the tag line for the Cabane that had caught his eye was “la grande aventure du sauvetage dans les Alpes,” roughly translated as “the great adventure of rescue in the Alps.” It had seemed a strange description at the time.

Ambrose, half-French, half-American, had been trying for years to convince Jim to join him on a late-summer hike from hutte to hutte in the Bernese Alps, but Jim had always been too busy at work. Had he ever taken a vacation while he was at KKT? He’d sacrificed the bulk of his twenties, even the summers when he was in business school, to the small investment boutique that had promised him a future. Well, no time like the present.

“This hutte,” Ambrose was saying—he pronounced it hoote with a silent h, “was carried up the Geltenhorn in one piece, suspended from a military helicopter.”

Approaching the shining shelter, now unobstructed by the mountain shadow that had covered it from a distance, Jim didn’t care how it had been transported. He would have stopped anywhere to escape the incessant, chafing wind and to rest his sore feet. The blisters on his left heel were bleeding; he cursed himself again for not heeding the advice of the saleswoman back in New York who’d suggested he break in his new boots two weeks before the trip. Jim guessed that by the time he returned to New York the following week, his boots would feel . . . well, just perfect.

Firewood burning. A pale wisp of smoke rose from the side of the metal bubble into the achingly blue late-afternoon sky. A deep breath. They were finally there. A gust of cold wind set the sign, LA CABANE DES AUDANNES, jangling on its chain. Jim paused on the rocky terrace outside the threshold to gaze back at the thread-thin serpentine path along the tip of the range they’d hiked for most of the day. The expanse of gray and black craggy peaks extended out of sight into the distance.

“I smell Wiener schnitzel,” said Ambrose, dashing into the hutte. Jim followed, the KKT door slamming behind him.

Inside was a world of charm and warmth. The room was alive with voices and laughter. Clusters of hikers sprawled across chairs; small round tables crowded with mugs of beer