Hers is the last vehicle in the funeral home parking lot. Carol makes sure of that before she straps the brass urn with her husband’s ashes into the passenger seat of their pickup truck and sets off for their summer house on Lake Superior. She wants no conversation with anyone about where she is going. It is unwise, she knows that. January near the lake is treacherous—spectacularly bright sunny days suddenly extinguished by driving snow and whiteouts, hidden ice patches on the roads, and drifts pushed by the wind coming out of the northwest from Canada. Jerry would have a fit about her setting out late in the afternoon to drive three hundred miles but she yearns for time alone in the car, just the road, the solitude, not having to talk to anybody. Every condolence offered at the funeral made her tired and feeling worse. She’s had enough sympathy to last a lifetime.
The crying starts before she even gets out of town. Not sobs, just long streams of tears, and gasps every few minutes. The funeral had pressed the numbness right out of her. With no one around, no one to console her, she can finally relax into the crying she’s postponed for days.
The last fifty miles takes two hours of driving in a single lane, headlights on the drifted tracks of cars that had passed before. Snowmobiles, their headlights glowing in the snowy dark, pass on either shoulder of the road, jumbling her sense of what is right or left, on the road or off. A snowplow bears down behind her, its headlights so near that she fears its driver doesn’t see her truck. He passes, throwing up blinding sheets of snow. Carol considers pulling over to the side, but she doesn’t know where the side is. She wipes the sweat off her upper lip and tightens her grip on the wheel. She glances at the urn, I’m doin’ okay, Jerry. Don’t worry. But she knows that’s a lie. She’s afraid of the snow, the road, being alone.
Finally, she reaches the quarter-mile-long driveway leading to the summerhouse and stops to assess the situation. She sees a couple of two- or three-foot drifts but most of the driveway is clear, one blessing of that intense wind off the lake. What do you think, Jer? Should I just gun it or wimp out and walk in? He’d worry about running into the ditch and nobody left in town to tow them out. She decides it’s too far to walk, especially carrying Jerry’s urn.
She flips on the 4-wheel drive and steps on the gas. It makes for a wild ride—the dark, the drifts, and going faster than she would have on a nice summer day. But she makes it to the house. She leaves the truck lights on so she can see to unlock the door which sticks like it always has. She puts her shoulder into it as Jerry did and the door pops open. She runs back to the truck to turn off the headlights and get the urn.
The door opens into the house’s lower level where there are two bedrooms and a utility room. Up the stairs is the kitchen, a living room with a fireplace, a bedroom, and stairs to a loft where she and Jerry slept. The house was built by a local carpenter who’d sketched out the floor plan on a yellow legal pad and stapled it to a contract which the three of them signed. He had a vision for the house and they trusted him. It was a beautiful place.
She goes up the stairs, switching on lights as she goes, stopping at the thermostat to dial up the heat, and then heading to the floor-to-ceiling windows. Carol puts her hands on the cold glass and looks into the darkness. She sees the outlines of huge ice mounds on the shore and the slim moonlight reflecting off the ice chunks floating on the waves of Lake Superior. Tomorrow, she will make her way down there with the urn and scatter Jerry’s ashes. This is what he’d wanted although he never thought she’d bring him up here in winter. Summer would have been better, smarter, he would’ve said. Winter is just too risky.
The house, warm and lit, is the haven she knew it would be. This living room, this kitchen, this place where they’d played Irish music on the old CD player and watched freighters with their stem to stern lights passing by miles out on the lake, this is their beloved place. I was right to come, Jer. It’s perfect. But it isn’t perfect. She is on an errand and alone.
She considers building a fire, but it is late and the wood is outside covered with snow. That can wait until tomorrow, a way to warm up after the scattering, maybe with a toddy or hot buttered rum, she forgets what they have in the cupboard. She goes to the kitchen for a glass of water and to look out at the neighbor’s house a quarter mile down the beach. The neighbors are gone, everyone on the lakeshore is gone, but that is okay. She will do what she came to do and go home. It will be fine. When Carol turns on the tap to fill her glass, she sees dishes in the sink—a bowl and a spoon, traces of tomato soup on both, still damp enough to be wiped off by a fingertip.
She freezes, afraid to breathe. Someone has been in the house. She spins around and opens the refrigerator. There is a Styrofoam take-out box and a half-full bottle of Mountain Dew on the middle shelf along with a container of blueberry yogurt and a piece of chocolate cake on a paper plate. Jesus. Who’s been here? How did they get in? What if they’re still here?
She eases the refrigerator door shut and creeps silently back with her hands held up in front of her as if the appliance itself had become radioactive. Her eyes widen to take in every corner of the room. She feels behind her for the drawer with all the kitchen utensils, spatulas, and wire whisks. She finds the hammer Jerry kept there so he wouldn’t have to go out to the tool chest in the truck every time a nail needed pounding.
With the hammer in her hand, she breathes in tiny jerks, her head and shoulders shaking. Get control of yourself. Breathe quietly. There are no police in town, only the sheriff an hour away. She decides to tiptoe out of the house before confronting whoever is there, and drive into town to call the sheriff from the gas station. She grabs the truck keys from the counter and inches toward the stairs to the back door.
“Who’s there?” A woman’s voice comes from the bedroom, just a few steps away. No. A girl’s voice, softly whiny like a teenager not wanting to get up for school. Carrying the hammer with both hands, Carol nudges the door open with her foot.
The girl sits up in bed and yelps, “Who are you?”
Only her face is visible. She wears a red parka with the hood pulled tight and tied under her chin. She is lying under a stack of blankets and sleeping bags gathered from all the rooms of the house.
“Who are you?” shouts Carol. “What are you doing in our house?”
The girl’s voice shakes. “I’m Ruthie B., well, Ruth Binski, actually. I’ve been staying here since Christmastime. I’ve been real careful. I haven’t broken anything. Are you mad?”
“Of course I’m mad. You’re trespassing. How did you get in?”
“The porch door was unlocked.” Ruthie B. pulls her knees to her chest and wraps an old brown sleeping bag around her shoulders. Her eyes are pale blue, washed out, and wide open.
“Is anyone else here?” Carol looks over her shoulder.
“No. Just me. There’s nobody else here. Can you put the hammer down?”
“You have to leave. Right now. Get up.” Carol drops the hammer on the bedside table and moves toward Ruthie B.
“It’s dark out! And it’s really cold. I’ll go in the morning. Okay?” Ruthie B. scrunches herself into the corner and clutches the blankets like a life vest.
“Oh no. Don’t hide. You’re getting up and out of here this minute.” Carol’s voice sounds strange to her, mean and fearsome. She grabs the girl’s arm and pulls her off the bed, the blankets fall in a heap on the floor. The girl is fully dressed in jeans and a hoodie beneath the parka.
“Put your boots on and hurry up.”
It isn’t hard to drag the girl down the stairs. She must not weigh more than 90 pounds and she barely struggles. She has all the resistance of a student being taken by the arm to the principal’s office, protesting but coming along, making that noise kids make when they know they have no choice. She strikes Carol as a kid with experience being thrown out of places.
Carol unlocks and opens the back door.
“The wind’s died down. It’s only a mile to town. Go to the gas station. Tell them your troubles.”
Ruthie B. gives Carol one last pleading look.
“Go!” Carol shoves Ruthie B. out the door, slams it shut, and turns the lock. She yanks the curtains closed to keep out the draft. Her heart hammers in her chest. Oh Jerry, I just threw a kid out in the middle of the night in the freezing cold. She thinks he would’ve done the same, but she isn’t sure. Nothing like this had ever happened before.
Carol rummages in the cupboard to find the four-pack of six-ounce bottles of white wine that Jerry’s cousins left last summer. She puts all four bottles in her pocket and throws the cardboard carrier in the trash where she sees candy bar wrappers and tampons wrapped in toilet paper. Why the hell didn’t she use the trashcan in the bathroom? She gets undressed, puts on long underwear, and gets into bed. She drinks the little bottles of wine, one after the other. She feels sick and thinks about throwing up but falls asleep instead.
Carol wakes early the next morning, moving the curtain in the loft window to see the sun’s light just beginning to spread over the pines lining the driveway. No more snow. That is good, but her head throbs. She desperately wants a hot cup of coffee but after rummaging in the cupboard last night, she knows there is no coffee in the house. She will have to go to town. Maybe get donuts. A donut and a hot cup of coffee will be good to have. And maybe more wine for later.
She pulls on her jeans and a heavy turtleneck, laces up her boots, finds her parka and keys, and goes downstairs. She flings open the curtains covering the back door. On the concrete stoop, the girl is curled in a ball and leaning against the glass. Carol unlocks the door and pulls it open. The cold air clears her aching head.
“For heaven’s sake, girl, what are you doing here?” Carol’s voice is a combination of anger and remorse. Oh my God, Jerry, this girl spent the whole damn night out here!
Ruthie B. raises her head from her crossed arms. She is as folded in on herself, as tightly gathered, as a human being could be. Last night’s snow clings to her mittens and the ruff 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 in the snow all night?”
Ruthie B. unfolds herself and stands up, shivering so hard she seems to be rattling.
Carol walks her into the house and up the stairs. With each step, Carol bites her lip a little harder. What a mess. This kid. Jerry in his urn on the kitchen counter. No coffee. She gently pushes Ruthie B. to the couch and goes to fetch the blankets from the bedroom, thick with girl smell. She spreads the blankets over Ruthie B. and goes to the kitchen to put the kettle on the stove. There’s only peach tea in the cupboard. It will have to do.
“My name’s Carol. I’m making you some tea.” She wants to sit down and put her head in her hands.
“What’s in the vase, Carol?”
“You mean the urn? That’s my husband. His ashes. I came up here to scatter his ashes.” Carol turns 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 pours hot water into two mugs, each with a peach teabag. She carries both mugs over to the couch and hands one to Ruthie B.
“He got sick and then he died. There’s more to it than that, but that’s pretty much it. The more important question right now is why are you living in our house?”
Ruthie B. shrugs and jams her hands into the pockets of her hoodie. “I was in a foster home and when I turned 18 they told me to get out. So I just started walking. I figured there would be some abandoned cabins or something up here. This is where I ended up.”
Carol perches on the edge of her chair, her eyes narrow. She sighs.
They sit in silence, drinking their peach tea, staring out the window at Lake Superior. Big chunks of ice float on the waves. The small herd of deer that live on the ridge come tiptoeing past the porch. The effect is hypnotic. Soon, Carol can hear Ruthie B.’s breathing slow and knows she has drifted off. She pulls the blankets up to Ruthie B.’s chin. I’m tucking in our little squatter. Jerry would flip out.
A scratching sound snaps Carol out of her own nap. Something at the back door? A bear? A wolf? Maybe a dog, but it sounds bigger than a dog. She ducks into the bedroom to grab the hammer and heads for the stairs. Her toe catches on the edge of a throw rug and she buckles. She reaches for the banister but can’t grab hold. She cascades down the stairs as if they were encased in ice, sliding and colliding until she reaches the bottom and hits the wall. Pain shoots right through her. Her back, her head, her ankle. She wonders if it’s broken.
She considers crawling up the stairs. She needs to get ice for her ankle. But she can’t maneuver herself to stand.
“Ruthie B.! I need help!”
“What? Where are you?”
Ruthie B. appears at the top of the stairs, blankets flowing around her like a queen’s robe.
“I need help getting up the stairs. I need to ice my ankle. I may have broken it.”
With the light behind her, Ruthie B. looks almost translucent, other worldly. She pauses, and then disappears. Carol sinks into herself. She’s not going to help me.
But Ruthie B. comes back. “I just had to get rid of all those blankets.”
It takes a long time to hop up the stairs on one foot even with one arm around Ruthie B.’s shoulders. It hurts to hop, everything hurts.
“We don’t have to hurry. We’ll just go stair by stair.” Ruthie B. makes sure Carol’s foot is positioned right to take the next step. Carol can smell the many nights of sleep on her. The girl needs a hot shower, a good scrubbing, and some of that green apple shampoo. Now, it is Ruthie B.’s turn to make the tea.
“I can’t believe this. I came up here to scatter Jerry’s ashes. And now everything is a mess. My ankle. You being here. Now, what do I do?” Carol settles into the old blue chair, the one she always sat in when Jerry was alive, opposite him in his chair 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. We got up the stairs okay together.” Ruthie B. sits with her hands folded in her lap, quiet but on the edge of her seat. They wait until the next morning to scatter the ashes. The snow and wind have picked up again so they stand on the deck instead of braving the beach. It is quiet. Carol struggles to remove the lid of the urn, pulling on it until Ruthie B. reaches over and turns the lid. Inside the thick plastic bag that holds the ashes is folded in a neat square. Carol holds the urn with both hands and Ruthie B. opens the bag.
“Is it time?” Ruthie B. asks.
“Yeah. It’s time.” Carol moves to the railing and turns the urn upside down and empties Jerry’s ashes on to the snow and sand below. The ashes settle in a heap and then blow away in the whistling wind. This is what she wanted, why she drove so far in the dead of winter, to bring Jerry back to their beloved place.
From the deck, Carol can see faint tracks in the snow from the night before. They look like those of a large dog, maybe a wolf, searching for something, maybe scouting the ridge’s deer herd. The tracks fade off into the stand of trees to the far side of the house. She isn’t afraid of the wolf. She might have been a year ago, she might have been afraid of coming up here in the winter, but she is a different person now. The scariest thing has already happened. Jerry is gone.
Carol replaces the lid on the urn and hops across the deck to the sliding door. Inside, she puts the urn on the kitchen table, unzips her jacket and sits in Jerry’s captain’s chair.
“I’ll go now.” Ruthie B. is bundled up, her backpack hoisted on her shoulders. She studies the floor for a moment. “I’m sorry I broke into your house. Well, I didn’t really break in. But you know.”
Carol shakes her head. I can’t believe I’m about to say this. She puts her aching foot on a kitchen chair. “You don’t have to go.”
Ruthie B. stares at her.
“You can stay.”
“You want me to stay here?” Ruthie B. hooks her thumbs under the straps of her backpack and sways back and forth, ready to leave.
“Yeah. I do. We both need some time. I need to stay off this ankle for a few days and you need to make a plan.”
Ruthie B. cocks her head as if she hasn’t heard right. She looks at Carol, waiting, and when no words come, she pulls off her backpack and puts it on the blue chair.
Carol points to the window. “There was a wolf out there last night. Go take a look. You can still see his tracks.” The wolf means something to Carol but she isn’t sure what. She knows she is glad to be in a place where there is a wolf and not be afraid. That seems enough for now.