He was either going to the hospital or he was sleeping outside—in an alley, or a park, exposed to the elements.
But it was eight blocks, so far, each step now requiring a crushing expenditure of energy, and the lights were disintegrating all around him—swirling, long tails getting more intense, more pronounced, skewing his vision as if he could see the world only as a long-exposure shot of a city at night, the car lights stretching into rods of brilliance, the streetlamps burning like blowtorches.
He bumped into someone.
A man pushed him, said, “Do you drive that way?”
At the next intersection, Ethan stopped, doubtful he could make it across.
He stumbled back and sat down hard on the sidewalk against a building.
The street had become crowded—he couldn’t see anything distinctly, but he could hear footsteps moving by on the concrete and snippets of passing conversation.
He lost all sense of time.
He might have dreamed.
Then he was lying on his side on the cold concrete, felt someone’s breath, their voice right in his face.
Words came at him, though he couldn’t assemble them into any sensible order.
He opened his eyes.
Night had fallen.
He was shivering.
A woman knelt beside him, and he felt her hands gripping his shoulders. She was shaking him, speaking to him.
“Sir, are you all right? Can you hear me? Sir? Can you look at me and tell me what’s wrong?”
“He’s drunk.” A man’s voice.
“No, Harold. He’s sick.”
Ethan tried to pull her face into focus, but it was dark and blurry, and all he could see were those streetlamps shining like minor suns across the road and the occasional streak of light from a passing car.
“My head hurts,” he said in a voice that sounded far too weak and pained and fear-filled to be his. “I need help.”
She took his hand and told him not to worry, not to be afraid, that help was already on the way.
And though the hand holding his clearly didn’t belong to a young woman—the skin too taut and thin, like old paper—there was something so familiar in the voice that it broke his heart.
They took the Bainbridge Island ferry out of Seattle and headed north up the peninsula toward Port Angeles, a convoy of four cars carrying fifteen of the Burkes’ closest friends.
Theresa had been hoping for a pretty day, but it was cold, gray rain, the Olympics obscured, and nothing visible beyond their narrow corridor of highway.
But none of that mattered.
They were going regardless of the weather, and if no one else wanted to join her, she and Ben would hike up alone.
Her friend Darla drove, Theresa in the backseat holding her seven-year-old son’s hand and staring out the rain-beaded glass as the rainforest streaked past in a blur of dark green.
A few miles west of town on Highway 112, they reached the trailhead to Striped Peak.
It was still overcast, but the rain had stopped.
They started out in silence, hiking along the water, no sound but the impact of their footfalls squishing in the mud and the white noise of the breakers.
Theresa glanced down into a cove as the trail passed above it, the water not as blue as she remembered, blaming the cloud cover for muting the color, no failing of her memory.
The group passed the World War II bunkers and climbed through groves of fern and then into forest.
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?”