He traced the curve of her shoulder lightly with his finger, wanting but unable to wake her. Her arms, like the rest of her, were long and graceful. Her hands curled under her chin in a vulnerable supplication to the sleep gods. He mused at the number of people who underestimated the strength of her graceful form. His hand continued along her slim hip and rested above her thigh, unable to continue its journey down the shapeliest legs he had ever seen, stretching beyond his in their bed. His thoughts wandered back 17 years to the first time he saw her.
It was 1988—he was backpacking in the Desolation Wilderness area of the Sierras with his two dogs. His commander at the time was scheduled to join him but had backed out at the last minute. On that June afternoon, he organized his campsite in the granite bowl that contained Island Lake, a mountain pool of icy crystal water. The dogs alerted him to someone below as they ran barking toward the ledge where the trail ended. A girl, the most incredible girl he had ever seen, climbed up over the ledge. As she stood up, her 5-foot, 8-inch frame unfolded over impossibly long legs. Although carrying a large rucksack, she walked with confidence toward the dogs, her hand held out in greeting. She called to him and asked if the dogs were friendly, although they were already wagging their tails and sniffing her boots. Some watchdogs he thought, watching her charm the German Shepherd and the sheepdog. Halfway charmed himself, he waited for the inevitable boyfriend or husband to appear behind her, assuming that a male companion would intrude on this fantasy very shortly.
“Are there any other campsites on the other side of the lake? I don’t want to crowd in,” she called.
“No, I am afraid this is it,” he lied. With one eye on the trailhead and the other on her, he stepped forward to introduce himself. She was wearing khaki hiking shorts and a white T-shirt. Her long blonde hair was pulled back into a ponytail, stray curls escaping around her ears and the nape of her neck. “Pride Nicholson,” he extended his hand after glancing behind her one last time. Her grip was strong and confident, eroding his notion that women didn’t backpack alone. Her height didn’t bother him; at five-foot six, he had often found himself looking up to beautiful women. “Summer Waters.” Her smile lit up his face. They paused for a moment, then laughed together—they were both used to questions about their unusual first names.
“You first,” she insisted. He told her about his mother, a petite southern woman with a penchant for lusty romance books. She named him after a tall dark and handsome somebody in one of her novellas. His father, a certified North Carolina redneck, thought his wife was just being patriotic about Old Dixie and went along with the name.
“My mother chose my name as well. She was a repressed flower child, my father a bank president. They argued over the name— one of the few times my mother’s artistic leanings held up under the pressure of being a socialite and banker’s wife.”
A male companion never showed. She pitched her tent as far from his as possible, but on the same piece of ground. He busied himself with his mess kit while she organized her site. Digging around in his Alice pack, he found two worn and fuzzy lollipops, leftover from his last field assignment. Hard candies were a staple for Special Forces soldiers, providing quick energy and something other than dust and mud to taste on long patrols. Right now he hoped they provided an offering and conversation.
She was sitting in the doorway of her tent, cleaning underneath her fingernails with a Buck knife. Buddy, his German Shepherd, was at her feet—the dog had not strayed far from her since she emerged at the trailhead. Pride was a little surprised at this, since Buddy was not impressed with most humans. Buddy had been an EOD K-9. His handler, Dave Grissom, was Pride’s best friend. Dave was killed when Buddy had alerted on a pipe bomb in a building search. The dog had lost one eye and still carried a few ounces of shrapnel in his neck ruff from the blast. Dave died instantly, a painful memory that still had the power to plow through Pride like hot lead. Buddy had been fiercely loyal to Dave and never really recovered from his death. Pride commiserated, and lived with the dog’s toleration of him.
“Benedict Arnold” he muttered to Buddy as he hunched down beside them. Buddy gave him a sarcastic look out of his one eye—the canine equivalent of “Yeah, whatever,” and rolled over on his back, sticking all four paws in the air. “You look ridiculous.”
“Your dog likes me,” she sounded a bit guilty. He’s not the only one. Summer accepted the sucker with a warm smile and an amused look at the lint stuck to the wrapping.
They talked for several hours, finding an easy rapport. She shared just enough to further pique his interest—a small-town police officer on a getaway weekend, she was born and raised several counties away. She asked him about his job, seeming knowledgeable about the various branches of the Armed Forces and their many divisions. He downplayed his rank and specialty, but she asked just the right questions and sounded impressed in all the right places. Ever the gentleman, he left when she stifled a yawn.
A summer rainstorm awakened them before dawn. From his bivvy sack Pride watched Summer stake out her rain fly with a series of guylines, which she handled and tied like a Navy Seal. He wondered what they taught in small-town police academies. After breakfast, they spread their wet bedding and clothing on the rocks to dry. Summer stripped down to cotton underwear and a tank shirt, drying her skin and hair with a small chamois. He could hardly take his eyes off of her as the memory of two people coupled in passion crept into his head. It had been far too long. His last relationship ended abruptly, as did the one before that. His charm and the green felt beret he wore afforded him many opportunities with women. Passions flared, then burned out conveniently before his next deployment.
Pride and Summer spent the rest of the weekend fishing, hiking, and swimming. “I’ll race you,” he challenged, pointing to the flat rocks that rose above the surface in the middle of the basin, giving the lake its name. She gave him a curious smile. “Sure thing!” He shucked off his BDUs, confident that his training as a combat diver and his Ranger shorts would impress her. Even with her height and strength, he figured he had the advantage. He had no idea that the next fourteen years would be spent trying to live down the look of complete shock on his face when he reached the rock only to find her stretched out sunbathing, waiting for him.
The weeks that followed were filled with tentative telephone calls, dinner dates, and eventually, the fulfilled passion of two people who had finally found each other in a world of false starts and treachery. That summer was ground zero for both of them. She went back to her small town cop shop, he to Africa, Kuwait, Iraq, Bosnia, wherever there was trouble in the world. They kept in touch, suspending other relationships in their lives when they had the opportunity to be together. She eventually moved on to a larger metropolitan agency and got lost in the world of undercover drug work and search and recovery diving. They continued to climb the ranks, he made lieutenant colonel, she patrol sergeant. Archetypal warriors, they both knew their tenuous hold on anything resembling normal would keep them from settling down.
In 1998 Pride called Summer on her birthday, as he did every year from wherever he was. This year it was the jungles of Burundi. The satellite uplink was rife with interference and delays, but the message was clear: I’m getting out and we’re moving to Florida. They spent several lazy, happy years as dive instructors at a swanky resort in the Caribbean before settling in Tampa, where he took a civilian intelligence position at MacDill Air Force Base. A mediocre desk job that made him itch, but kept him on one continent. For a time at least.
October 15, 2001, just over a month after 9-11, he received his recall orders. Soldiers like Pride paid the ultimate price for the elite training they received; they were never really out—the military could have them back whenever it wanted. He was going back. He will never forget her face as she watched him board a C-130 transport for Germany, the start of a journey that would eventually land him in Afghanistan.
Now in June 2005, exactly 17 years after that fateful summer, he hovered close to her in their bed. He wanted so badly to wake her, to see the smile that now included fine lines and even more sparkle than she had at 24 She hadn’t smiled that way in nearly three years. She hadn’t done a lot of things in the past few years. He looked around their bedroom, filled with unusual objects from all over the world: an African hippo stick, a Saudi Arabian oil lamp, a brass compass from Portugal, photos and maps of their adventures together.
But one item remained tucked away in her desk: a folded flag, the one that had draped his coffin when he was buried with full military honors in November 2002.
Nearly every day for the past three years Pride has watched her rise, make a cup of tea, and read the morning paper with Bosco. The German Shepherd was a direct descendant of Buddy, who had also passed on to his great reward. Every day Pride ached, knowing that he couldn’t leave her. He also knew that she would never be able to move on with her life if he did not. He wanted to see the sparkle in her eyes one last time, he wanted to be out to dinner with friends and have the dreaded swimming-race story come up again, he wanted to see her arch her left eyebrow when he teased her back, and he would step into the inferno of a thousand more car bombs to make love to her once more.
One morning in June, he watched her from the armchair across the bedroom. He had been drifting in and out for a few days, fighting the force that tugged on his soul, reminding him that the time was near. Summer stretched, slowly rose, and went to her desk. She took the flag from its corner, placed it inside a glass shadow box that contained his service medals, and hung it on the wall. Silently she wiped away a steady stream of tears. He watched her break into the closet in the spare room, pull out her backpack, and stuff it with gear. A plane ticket to SFO lay on the desk and a large dog crate was by the front door. We’re going back… He could hear Dave and Buddy getting closer. Just a little while longer, please.
When Summer crested the trailhead at Island Lake with Bosco, Pride was waiting for her. Turning to face her on the exact spot where they had met, he revealed the last of his earthly light in a pale silhouette. The setting sun threw wildly glittering diamonds up the steep walls of the granite basin cradling the lake, a crystal chalice holding the clarity they both needed to move forward. They stood there in silence, facing each other for the last time. Bosco whined and pawed the ground, nosing the air as the wind ruffled the fur on his back and carried with it the scent of the past and the promise of what might be. Summer scratched him behind the ears as his low, mournful howl joined the wind, chasing the last of the diamonds up the canyon walls and into the blue and endless sky.