It's been three years but I still expect his arrival.
Three years gone, his body lost on military assignment, somewhere between Kandahar and here. Disappeared. Gone. Richard had been on a secret mission, a select military team. There were no other details. His body, lost in retrieval. Lost, as if a package they failed to find.
I face a forest of signs. Cardboard stapled to stakes, as thick as trees. One of the protesters pushes a baby in front of me as I walk. She uses the infant to break the law. For a second, I debate taking the proffered child. What if I said, yes, yes, I don't want to have the baby of a near-stranger, I don't want to have a child that is not Richard's, so thank you, let me take this one instead. Thank you, a la Jonathan Swift, for this diapered, chubby, toddler.
An after-work happy hour. A defense contractor meet up. A glass enclosed bar. Silver table tops. Orange chairs. I took him home. It's happened before. It's happened a lot. Not You. Not Richard. This Not You called. I agreed to coffee. Sober. Then dinner. Pricey.
"You should tell the father," the counselor recommends after I get inside the clinic.
"To be sure you're making the right choice. You should have all your options. His support, or lack of, might be one of them."
My jaw clenches. My teeth may break. "What I have is an intolerance to birth control hormones and severe cramping from IUD's. All he had is a broken condom."
She clears her throat. "Adoption is an option," she says.
Adoption might be a better option if it means I don’t have to sit through all this nonsense. I can put an ad on Craigslist for a loving couple who want children. But I don't have the time. Or the desire. It's not Richard's.
I am mandated to wait for twenty-four hours before the next appointment. The movers are already at the house. They pack boxes around me. Take the couch to the truck. Technically, the furniture is Richard's but his sister never mentioned it so I take it. I have nothing else. When Richard was lost, his sister inherited the house. Live-in girlfriends don't inherit property. She was fine with my rent money. Until recently. She will let the house as a vacation property. She will not sell.
My phone buzzes. Not You. Dave. Not You.
Ann saw you at the clinic.
It takes me a minute to place the name. Ann. We met her and her husband for drinks once, some autumn evening. She was excited about the leaves changing color. I pause. Count back on my fingers. Six months. Six months of Not You - Dave - driving up here on the weekends, in his new, extended cab truck. So he'd fit in, I guess.
I ignore the text. The movers corner by with my queen mattress.
I am mandated to return for the ultrasound. I am angry at the crowd that threatens to block my entrance. Richard and I watched an old movie where white missionary priests were forced run the gauntlet. Torture. Punishment. This is what walking into the clinic feels like.
A gauntlet is what my life has been since lost. Bed, breathe. Wake up, breathe. Work, breathe. Smile at well-wishers and sympathizers, work colleagues at the defense agency who know what lost means. I smile a plastic smile to them. Fixed, fake. The same one I use on strangers that I bump into at the grocery store. This plastic smile is on my face as I pass the raucous, protesting clinic throng. I hope Ann sees me.
I lie on the table, shirt lifted and stomach exposed. The technician snaps on a latex glove and squeezes a tube of gel to her rubber-encased fingers. Her hand nears to me, an inch at a time, like a horror movie scene. The music from Jaws plays in my head. I hate having my stomach touched. Richard knows this. He knows how to slide his hand past and to my thighs. The rest of them have to be shown.
The tech spreads the gel in concentric circles, side to side, across my abdomen, down to my pubic bone. Her soft touch, the gel, makes this more intimate than sex.
She snaps off the glove and replaces it with another. She flips a switch on the table next to me and the machine it is attached to hums with an electric pulse. She presses a probe to my belly. I sit up and gag. She shoves a wastepaper basket under my chin and I hold it there as I dry heave.
"Can we not do this?" I ask. "I'm not keeping it."
"We have to," she replies. "It's required."
I lie down. The machine drones on, a digital cadence in search of a barely formed rhythmic beat.
Morning. Zero dark thirty, Richard would say. I awake on the bedroom floor inside his old sleeping bag. My last day in the house. My last day to hike up to the overlook.
Richard and I hiked every morning, part of his training routine. A couple miles up, the trail veers to a cliff that extends above the tree line. Beneath it is a cave, a gap within the rocks. A family of black bears lived there. We'd sit on the overhang as the sun rose and watch the bear cubs stumble after their mother in search of grub-laden logs.
My phone vibrates as I lace my boots. I’ll come up Saturday. Don’t decide anything until then. I zip the phone into the pocket of my fleece. There is no cell service up the mountain so I won’t get any more of his texts. Tomorrow is the appointment, the one thing they don’t mandate. I look around at the blank walls and empty house. I won’t be here Saturday.
The trail begins in the backyard. I grind my boots into the mud, heel first. Richard liked living in the Blue Ridge. He didn't mind the commute to the base. I slogged through rush hour until I finally scored a three-day-a-week telecommuting gig. I haven't been awake this early since Richard was lost so I haven't seen the bears in a while. On weekends, I took Not You to other trails, on the other side of the mountain. He is not allowed here.
Richard’s headlamp lights my way uphill, along with the setting moon. The craggy outcrop is surrounded by pine, oak, and poplar. Melting snow creates a patchwork effect on the forest floor. A quilt of brown and white. I settle in on the cliff's edge, rock flecked with feldspar and quartzite. I brush the stone free of snow. The granite is clean. Raw. Free of moss and lichen. Free of the muddy footprints of summer.
Once, as we watched the bears, Richard joked that we should call the mama bear Winnie-the-Pooh.
"Too common," I said. "She's a wild black bear, raising her family. She can't be named after a boy-bear cartoon."
"It's a goddamn bear, Bree, for Christ sake," said Richard. "Why do you have to pick everything apart?"
"I didn't mean -" This was right before his deployment orders. I might have kept quiet had I known.
To the side of the ledge is a steep, rocky fissure. Not a path. Just a stone-filled gap, a dividing line between mountain and cliff. I wonder if I can climb down to the cave. I test the cleft, a few steps with one boot and then the other. Though some of the stones are wet with melted snow, I am confident of my hand holds. I land on the next outcrop. The cave beneath is no longer visible, a trick of angle and shadow. I wonder why Richard and I never bouldered here. I scale the next set of rocks.
I study my climbing options on the next landing. The fissure I originally followed etches itself into the side of the mountain. The other side, sheer rock face, offers no passage whatsoever. I go back to the crack in the stone and inch down sideways. I hit sharp edges and pockets of ice. My jeans give little protection and my fingers numb in response.
I drop from the last crag to the forest floor. I back away to get a view of how far I climbed. It is steeper than it looks from the top. Which explains why we never did this. Richard would want his climbing gear. His ropes, his carabiners. A thrill of accomplishment goes through me.
I walk to the front of the cave and recognize the musky smell. I know the scent of bear. I think of the fight we had over Winnie. I had to get over my sense of superiority, Richard said, more than once. His criticism wore me down. It was going to end. I knew it. He knew it. But we were both too busy to handle it, to bring it up, to work out logistics. Out of habit, we continued our four-thirty a.m. hikes to the overlook. I resented the pre-dawn wake up. Resented being coaxed out of bed for something that wasn't going to last. When Richard's deployment orders came through, his tone changed. Softened. His whisper was gentle in the days before his departure, hoarse in the morning hush. "C'mon," he'd say, "Let's go watch the sun rise." We'd hike wordlessly, hand-in-hand, to the familiar granite outcrop.
I step into the cave. Switch off the headlamp. Inhale the wild animal scent. Spring snow melt has seeped in. My fingers touch damp sandstone grit and the pungent odor grows stronger. Movement. What is there, stirs. A scrape, like dry leaf upon stone. Cold panic lodges inside me like the moment when the call from Richard's sister came through. He's lost. Like the moment I realized I was pregnant. I back out slowly, away from the scuffing. I don't know what I was thinking. This was the sort of impulsiveness that Richard hates. No maps, no trails, no plans. I look around in the wan, gray light. I can wander through the trees and search for a path that may not exist. Or I can climb up the way I came.
I wedge my boot into a fissure and scramble with knees and elbows, a gift of being caught rather than strength. I use this method of wedge-pull-scramble, until I am on the next boulder. Its awkward work and I land on the next set of rocks on my stomach, like a beached whale.
A black bear and her two cubs exit the cave below. Not the same ones. I know this. They have grown. They have abandoned this cave. This is a new family. But still. Still. Richard, look, they're here. Richard doesn't answer. Richard is gone - lost - He would have been gone whether he he'd been called up or not. Whether he was lost or not. I pull myself up and swallow hard against the tightening in my throat. There is another word I will not say.
On this ledge, I hope I am far enough away from the mother bear.
The cubs tumble around at the cave's entrance and break the morning quiet with their rehearsal of defensive huffs and growls. The mama bear lumbers out after them, noses at one and then the other until they stop their play. Cuffs the cubs with her paw toward breakfast.
I’m often inspired by nature, by places I have lived or visited. These settings are where I find my characters, or rather, where they find themselves. Nature – it’s such a nice word for a hungry bear or a savage storm – forces all of us to face our truths. This is what happens in Gauntlet. Bree must reconcile herself to the loss of Richard. She faces several self-inflicted challenges, including her climb to the bear cave. Only by facing the fact that she is lost, literally and figuratively, can she begin to accept the past.
Sheila R. Lamb's writing has appeared in Rappahannock Review, Monkeybicyle, JMWW, and elsewhere. She lives, teaches, and writes in the mountains of Virginia. Follow her on the usual places at @sheilarlamb.