A Winter Story: The Whole Story

She was an idiot for coming. Carol knew that much. The snow, the drifts, the ferocious wind coming off Lake Superior, combined they could kill. She knew that after twenty-five years owning a place on the lake, but she decided she didn’t care. After Jerry died, it was the only place she could be.

The last forty-two miles of the trip, from US 2 to Grand Marais, took almost three hours of driving in a single lane, headlights steady on the clouded-over tracks of the cars that had passed before, clear in one place, blown over in another. Snowmobiles, their riders’ headlamps glowing in the snowy dark, passed on either side, jumbling what was left or right, on the road or off. She couldn’t see what was in front of her or behind, a snowplow could be bearing down on her and she would have no way of knowing. Every time she swerved to avoid drifts or tapped the brakes to keep from spinning out, she reached over to the passenger seat to steady Jerry’s urn. The driving was terrifying, but she knew from experience that it was best to keep moving even if she couldn’t see. She would just have to guess where the road was.

When she turned down the hill to their place, she prayed that the driveway would be plowed and hadn’t already drifted over. But it was always drifted over when they came in winter. Why would it be different now? It could be plowed an hour ago and the wind would make new mountains of snow, deep enough that 4-wheel drive was meaningless. She stopped and shone a flashlight up the driveway. Impassable. She’d have to leave the truck and hike through the snow.

It was slow going. The snow came sideways in sheets, collecting on the ruff of her parka and hanging like a curtain over her face. Climbing through the drifts made her breathless and scared. She’d never done this alone, been in the wild like this without Jerry. He would’ve been leading the way and looking back to make sure she was alright. She looked up from the blizzard every few steps, using the flashlight to check her bearings. Aim for the door, she told herself. Just aim for the door.

It had been months since they’d been at their place. Last time was in October when they closed for the winter, stowing everything away, cleaning the place inside and out. They liked coming back in the spring to a place that was in shipshape condition. Jerry would not like her coming back in deep winter, too risky, he’d say. Too many things that could go wrong.

She dug in her pocket for the keys. It was crazy but she’d hardly ever even unlocked the door. Jerry did that. He’d get the door open and turn on the light and then she’d get out of the truck like she was royalty waiting for the trumpets to blow. She knew the backdoor lock would stick but she remembered how he said you had to lift the handle while you were turning the key, so she did that. But it didn’t work. She tried again, jiggled the door, and gave it a hard push with her shoulder. Her face curled into a scream, “Where the hell are you, Jerry?”

The lock popped. She flipped on the outside light and the light in the utility room, turned on the water, and fired up the water heater. Then she went upstairs, switching on lights as she went. She was back. At their place. And in a while, it would be warm in the house and she could go to sleep in the four-poster bed upstairs and just be done with all her heartbreak and yearning for just a while. She was right to come. Home was home but up here, on Lake Superior, this was their heart home.

The house, warm and lit, was the haven she thought it would be. Even though it was night, the world felt lighter, safer. This living room, this kitchen, this place where they played music on the old CD player and watched ships with their stem to stern lights aglow passing by miles out on Lake Superior, this was their beloved place. She went to the kitchen for a glass of water and to look out at the neighbor’s house a quarter mile down the beach which she knew would be dark but stopped when she saw dishes in the sink. A bowl and a spoon, the markings of tomato soup on both, still damp enough to be wiped off by a fingertip.

Carol froze. Someone had been in the house while they were gone. Recently. She spun around and opened the refrigerator. There was a Styrofoam take-out box and a half-drunk Mountain Dew on the second shelf. She and Jerry had emptied out the fridge and wiped it down last fall. They’d pulled it away from the wall, unplugged it, and left the door open. That was the fall ritual – part of closing the house down. But the refrigerator was pushed back against the wall and plugged in. Her eye caught the stove, a saucepan with a wooden spoon. The tomato soup.

Jesus, she whispered. Who’s been here? How did they get in?

What if they’re still here? What if they’re here right now?

Carol closed the refrigerator door, creeping silently backwards with her hands held up in front of her chest like the appliance itself had become radioactive. Her eyes widened to take in every corner of the room. She felt for the lip of the drawer behind her. It was the drawer with all the kitchen utensils, spatulas, and wire whisks. She knew there was a hammer there. Jerry kept a hammer in the kitchen drawer so he wouldn’t have to go out to his truck’s tool chest every time a nail needed pounding.

With the hammer in her hand, she stood thinking. Her breathing came in jerks, her head and then her shoulders started to shake as if she was standing jacketless in a winter gale. Get control of yourself. Breathe quiet. She took shallow, silent breaths. She thought about calling the police but there were no police nearby. The Sheriff was in a town an hour away. She should just leave. Get to the truck and drive into town. Go to the gas station and call the Sheriff. Yes, that’s a good plan. She inched toward the stairs. Her foot on the top stair, she heard someone speaking.

“Who’s there?” It was a woman’s voice. No, it was a girl’s, softly whiny like a teenager not wanting to get up for school. And it was coming from Carol’s daughter’s old bedroom, just a few yards away. Carrying the hammer like a hatchet, Carol nudged the bedroom door open with her other hand. The girl sat up in bed and yelped, “Who are you?”

“I’m the owner of this house! Who are you?”

Only the girl’s face was visible. She was wearing a parka with the hood pulled tight and tied under her chin and was lying under a dozen blankets and sleeping bags. Carol remembered the blankets as having been in different rooms in the house, the girl must have collected them all to sleep under. A house on Lake Superior in deep winter – there was almost no way to stay warm.

“I’m Destiny. I’ve been staying here awhile, well, actually, since Christmas.  The door was unlocked so I didn’t think anybody would care. Are you mad?” The wide-eyed nature of her question was dumbfounding to Carol.

“Yes! I’m mad. You have to go right now. Get up, let’s go.” Carol moved toward the bed, she noticed a heap of clothes on the floor next to a backpack overflowing with t-shirts and underwear.

“It’s dark out! And it’s really cold. I’ll go in the morning. Okay?” Her whiny teenager voice came back with pleading. Destiny burrowed under all the blankets.

“No! Don’t hide. You’re getting up and getting your gear and getting out of here this minute if I have to drag you to the door.” That’s what Jerry would have done; she knew it. He wouldn’t have had even this much conversation. With that, Carol grabbed Destiny’s arm and pulled her off the bed. She was already dressed – jeans, hoodie, parka – she just needed to put on her boots. “Here,” Carol yelled, “put on your damn boots,” tossing the pair she spied near the door. “And hurry up.” Destiny wrestled away, backing into the corner. “No, I’ll go tomorrow. I promise.”

It wasn’t hard to drag Destiny down the stairs. She couldn’t have weighed more than 90 pounds and she barely struggled. She had all the resistance of a student being taken by the ear to the principal’s office, protesting but coming along, making that noise kids make when they know they have no choice.

Carol opened the back door. “The wind’s died down. It’s not that bad out. It’s just a mile to town. Go to the gas station. It’s open all night. Tell them your troubles.” Destiny looked at her like a child in a poster for orphans in a faraway land. “Go!” And with that, Carol shoved Destiny out the door, slammed it shut, pulled up the door handle as hard as she could, and twisted the lock. She pulled the curtains shut to keep out the draft. She couldn’t believe she’d just physically thrown somebody out of her house. It was unreal. Like a lot of things.

The night was long. She found the unlocked door that Destiny had used to get in and gave it the same strong-arm treatment to get the lock to set. And then she went to the loft to bed. It would be impossible to sleep. Why the hell had Jerry left the door unlocked? She ruminated on this for hours, remembering every time he’d been in too much of a hurry, forgotten to close a window, left the stove on, she compiled lists in her head and then went over them, adding new mistakes, new faults. God damn Jerry left the God damn door open so some God damn stranger could come in and live in our God damn house. God damn Jerry.

Carol woke early, having barely slept. From the loft’s window, she could see the sunrise’s light just beginning to spread over the pines lining their driveway. It hadn’t snowed anymore, for that she was glad. There was no coffee in the house or cream. So, she would have to go to town. Maybe get donuts. A donut and a cup of coffee would be good to have. She pulled on her jeans and a heavy turtleneck, laced up her boots, and found her parka and gloves. With her keys in her hand, she flung open the curtains across the back door. There was Destiny, curled in a ball, leaning against the glass. Jesus. Is she alive? Did she freeze to death? What was I thinking pushing her out into the snow. The winter. Jesus. Up here. I’ve lost my mind.

“For Christ’s sake, what are you doing here?”

Destiny raised her head from her crossed arms. She was as folded in on herself, as tightly gathered as a human being could be. A light dusting of morning snow clung to her mittens and the ruff on the hood of her parka.

“I was afraid to go to the gas station.”

“You were afraid to go to the gas station, but you weren’t afraid to sit outside next to the door all night? That’s crazy.”

Destiny unfolded herself and stood up. She stood shivering. Carol was almost certain she could hear her teeth chattering.

“Jesus. It’s a miracle you’re not frozen to death. Come in the house.”

Carol slow-walked Destiny into the house and up the stairs, the girl shuffling stiff-legged as if she might have been partly frozen. With each step, Carol bit her upper lip a bit harder. What a mess. This crazy girl. Jerry in his stupid urn on the kitchen counter. No coffee.

Carol gently pushed Destiny on to the couch and went to fetch the blankets from the bed where the girl had been holed up the night before. She flicked up the thermostat several degrees. Then she filled the kettle, put it on the stove, and got the box of teabags out of the cupboard. Country Peach Passion. It was no substitute for coffee, but it would be hot, that would have to be good enough.

“What’s in the vase?”

“You mean the urn? That’s my husband. His ashes. I came up here to scatter his ashes on the beach. It was his favorite place.” Carol turned her to look out the window. It wouldn’t do for her to be tearing up in front of her little house guest.

“What happened? How come he’s dead?”

Carol poured hot water into two mugs, each with a peach teabag. She carried both mugs over to the couch and handed one to Destiny.

“It’s a long story. He got sick and then he died. There’s a lot more to it, but that’s pretty much it. The bigger question is why are you in my house?”

“I was in a foster home and I had to leave because I turned 18. So, I just started walking. I figured there would be some abandoned cabins or something up here. I don’t know. It’s just where I ended up.”

“Nobody helped you figure out where to go? Don’t the foster care people have to do that? Prepare you? I guess not. One more thing that’s crazy.”

They sat in silence, drinking their tea, staring out the window at Lake Superior. Soon, Carol could hear Destiny’s tiny breathing and knew she was asleep, ensconced in her blankets, both hands wrapped around the mug of tea. Carol lifted the mug from her hands and pulled a blanket up to Destiny’s chin. Tucking her in. I’m tucking in someone who broke into my house.

The scratching sound snapped Carol out of her own nap. She hadn’t realized how tired she was, how exhausted from the driving and the discovery and the near-miss with a kid parked at her back door in the dead of winter. Was it a dog or a bear? What on earth would be scratching at her door? Feeling like a battle-worn handler of unpleasant surprises, Carol headed for the stairs. She would deal with whatever it was. It was a first, feeling emboldened, but she like it. Liked thinking she could handle whatever it was.

She tripped, catching her right foot in the strap from the satchel she’d left on the floor the night before. Her arms reached out for the banister, but she couldn’t grab hold, her body cascading down the stairs as if the stairway itself was encased in ice. There was no purchase anywhere, just sliding and colliding until she reached the bottom and hit the wall.

The pain shot right through her. Her back, her head. Her ankle. She wondered if it was broken.

“Destiny!”

It took a long time to hop up the stairs on one foot even with one arm around Destiny’s shoulders. It hurt to hop, everything hurt.

“There’s no hurry. We’ll go stair by stair. I’m not going anywhere.” Destiny kept her eye on Carol’s hopping foot, wanting to make sure that she was positioned right to take the next step. Carol could smell the many nights of sleep on Destiny. The girl needed a hot shower, a good scrubbing, and some of that great green apple shampoo.

Now it was Destiny’s turn to make the tea.

“I can’t believe I did this. I came up here to scatter Jerry’s ashes. This is nuts. My ankle. You being here. Now, what do I do?” Carol had settled into the old blue chair, the one she’d always sat in when Jerry was alive, opposite him in his chair, always reading old issues of the New York Times.

“I’ll help you with the ashes. We can tape up your ankle and then do the ashes. It’ll be okay. Are there words or something that we’re supposed to say? I can do that. We got up the stairs okay.” Destiny sat with her hands folded in her lap, quiet but on the edge of her seat.

They waited until the next morning to scatter the ashes. The snow and wind had picked up again, so they stood on the deck instead of braving the beach itself. It was quiet. No words said out loud. Only words that Carol said to herself and maybe words that Destiny said, it didn’t matter. Jerry would be glad to be back home, no matter.

From the deck, Carol could see the nearly snow-covered tracks in the snow from the night before. A dog, a large dog, maybe a wolf. It had come looking, searching for something, and then left, the tracks fading off into the stand of trees to the far side of the house.

“I’ll go now.” Destiny was bundled up, her backpack cinched and ready to be hoisted on her shoulders. “I’m sorry I broke into your house. Well, I didn’t really break in. But you know.”

“No. Don’t go. Stay here. You be the caretaker – I’ll pay you a little bit. You can be in charge of keeping the wolves away.” Carol smiled, surprised at the offer she was making. “When I come back, we’ll figure things out. How does that sound?”

Destiny looked down at her boots and then, for long minutes, stared out the front window where snow was now falling like confetti. Then, seeming to be done with her deliberation, she spoke, so softly Carol could barely hear her, “It sounds okay. I’ll be the caretaker. I promise to always lock the door.”

6 Comments on “A Winter Story: The Whole Story

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