The trees still dripping.
Lushness even in early winter.
They neared the top.
The entire time, no one had spoken.
Theresa could feel a burning in her legs and the tears coming.
It started to rain as they reached the summit—nothing heavy, just a few wild drops blowing sideways in the wind.
Theresa walked out into the meadow.
She was crying now.
On a clear day, the view would’ve been for miles, with the sea a thousand feet below.
Today the peak was socked in.
She crumpled down in the wet grass, put her head between her knees, and cried.
There was the pattering of drizzle on the hood of her poncho and nothing else.
Ben sat down beside her and she put her arm around him, said, “You did good hiking, buddy. How you feeling?”
“All right, I guess. Is this it?”
“Yeah, this is it. You could see a lot farther if it wasn’t for the fog.”
“What do we do now?”
She wiped her eyes, took a deep, trembling breath.
“Now, I’m going to say some things about your dad. Maybe some other people will too.”
“Do I have to?”
“Only if you want to.”
“I don’t want to.”
“It doesn’t mean I don’t still love him.”
“I know that.”
“Would he want me to talk about him?”
“Not if it made you feel uncomfortable.”
Theresa shut her eyes, took a moment to gather herself.
She struggled onto her feet.
Her friends were milling around in the ferns, blowing into their hands for warmth.
It was raw up on the summit, a strong gale pushing the ferns in green waves and the air cold enough to turn their breath to steam.
She called her friends over and they all stood in a huddle against the rain and the wind.
Theresa told the story of how she and Ethan had taken a trip to the peninsula several months after they’d started dating. They stayed at a B&B in Port Angeles and, late one afternoon, stumbled upon the trailhead to Striped Peak. They reached the summit at sunset on a clear, calm evening, and as she stared across the strait at the long view into southern Canada, Ethan dropped to one knee and proposed.
He’d bought a toy ring from a convenience store vending machine that morning. Said he hadn’t been planning anything like this, but that he’d realized on this trip that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. Told her he’d never been happier than in this moment, standing on the top of this mountain and the world spread out beneath them.
“I hadn’t been planning anything like it either,” Theresa said, “but I said yes, and we stayed up there and watched the sun go into the sea. Ethan and I always talked about coming back here for a weekend, but you know what they say about life and making other plans. Anyway, we had our perfect moments...” She kissed the top of her son’s head. “...and our not so perfect ones, but I think Ethan was never happier, never more carefree and hopeful about the future than that sunset on the top of this mountain thirteen years ago. As you know, the circumstances surrounding his disappearance...” She pushed back against the storm of emotion that was waiting, always waiting. “...well, we don’t really have a body or ashes or anything. But...” A smile through the tears. “I did bring this.” She dug an old plastic ring out of her pocket, the gold paint of the band long since flaked away, the flimsy prongs still holding the emerald-colored prism of glass. Some of the others were crying now too. “He did eventually get me a diamond, but it seemed appropriate, if not more cost-efficient, to bring this.” She pulled a garden spade out of her wet backpack. “I want to leave something close to Ethan here, and this feels right. Ben, would you help me?”
Theresa knelt down and swept away the ferns until she saw the ground.
It was saturated from the rain, and the spade speared through easily. She dug out several chunks of earth and then let Ben do the same.
“I love you, Ethan,” she whispered, “and I miss you so much.”
Then she dropped the ring into the shallow grave and covered it with the upturned earth and leveled it off with the back of the blade.
* * *
That night, back at their home in upper Queen Anne, Theresa threw a party.
Packed the house with friends, acquaintances, coworkers, loads of booze.
Their core group of friends—now responsible, tame professionals—had once upon a time been wild and prone to excess, and on the drive home, they’d all vowed to tie one on in Ethan’s honor.
They kept their word.
They drank like fish.
They told stories about Ethan.
They laughed and cried.
* * *
At ten thirty, Theresa was standing on their deck that overlooked the small backyard, and on rare clear days, the Seattle skyline and the hulking, white mass of Mount Rainier to the south. Tonight, the buildings of downtown were obscured in mist, their presence relegated to radiating the cloud deck with a neon glow.
She leaned against the railing, smoking a cigarette with Darla—something she hadn’t done since her sorority days in college—and nursing her fifth G&T of the night. She hadn’t had this much to drink in ages, knew she’d pay for it in the morning, but for now, she reveled in this beautiful padding that protected her from the sharp edges of reality—the unanswered questions, the fear that was always with her. That haunted her dreams.
She said to Darla, “What if his life insurance benefit doesn’t pay?”
“Why wouldn’t it, honey?”
“No proof of death.”
“I’ll have to sell this house. I can’t swing the mortgage on my paralegal salary.”
She felt Darla’s arm slide through hers. “Don’t think about that right now. Just know that you have friends who love you. Who’d never let anything happen to you or Ben.”
Theresa set her empty glass on the railing.
“He wasn’t perfect,” she said.
“Not by a long, long shot. But the mistakes he made, when it came down to it...he owned them. I loved him. Always. Even when I first found out, I knew I’d forgive him. He could’ve done it again, and the truth is, I would’ve stayed. He had me, you know?”