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?”
“So you two had reconciled completely before he left?”
“Yeah. I mean, there were still really...tough feelings. What he did...”
“But we’d come through the worst of it. We were in counseling. We would’ve made it. And now...I’m a single mother, D.”
“Let’s get you to bed, Theresa. It’s been a long day. Don’t touch anything. I’ll come over in the morning, help you clean up.”
“Almost fifteen months he’s been gone, and every day I wake up, I still don’t believe this is really happening. I keep waiting for my cell to ring. For a text from him. Ben asks me constantly when Daddy’s coming home. He knows the answer, but it’s the same thing as with me...same reason I keep checking my phone.”
“Because maybe this time it’ll show a missed call from Ethan. Because maybe this time when Ben asks me, I’ll have a different answer for him. I’ll tell him Daddy will be home from his trip next week.”
Someone called Theresa’s name.
She turned carefully, unbalanced by the gin.
Parker, one of the young associates at the law firm where she worked, stood in the threshold of the sliding glass door.
“There’s someone here to see you, Theresa.”
“Who is it?”
“Guy named Hassler.”
Theresa felt a quiver in her stomach.
“Who’s that?” Darla asked.
“Ethan’s boss. Shit, I’m drunk.”
“You want me to tell him you can’t—”
“No, I want to talk to him.”
Theresa followed Parker inside.
Everyone had hit it too hard, and the party had crashed and burned.
Jen, her college roommate from her junior year, had passed out on the couch.
Several of her other girlfriends had gathered in the kitchen around someone’s iPhone, very drunk and attempting to call a cab on speakerphone.
Her sister, Margie, a teetotaler and possibly the only sober adult in the house, grabbed her arm as she passed and whispered that Ben was sleeping peacefully upstairs in his room.
Hassler stood waiting in the foyer in a black suit, black tie loosened, bags under his eyes. She wondered if he’d just come from the office.
“Hi, Adam,” she said.
They exchanged a quick hug, quick kiss on the cheek.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t come earlier,” Hassler said. “It’s been...well, it’s been a day. But I just wanted to drop by for a minute.”
“It means a lot. Can I get you a drink?”
“Beer would be great.”
Theresa stumbled over to the half-empty keg of Fat Tire and filled a plastic cup.
She sat with Adam on the third step of the staircase.
“I apologize,” she said. “I’m a little bit drunk. We wanted to send Ethan off like the good old days.”
Hassler sipped his beer. He was a year or two older than Ethan. Smelled faintly of Old Spice and still wore that same crew cut he’d had since she first met him at the company Christmas party all those years ago. A trace of red—just a day’s growth—was coming in across his jaw. She could feel the bulge of his firearm off the side of his hip.
“Are you still running into problems with Ethan’s life insurance?” Hassler asked.
“Yes. They’re dragging their feet paying. I think they’re going to make me bring a lawsuit.”
“If it’s all right with you, I’d like to call first thing next week. See if I can throw some weight, move things along.”
“I’d really appreciate that, Adam.”
She noticed she was speaking slowly and with extreme care in an effort to keep her words from slurring.
“You’ll send me the adjuster’s contact information?” he asked.
“I want you to know, Theresa, that it’s the first thing on my mind every day, finding out what happened to Ethan. And I will find out.”