Leslie’s up. I hear her door creak open, her feet shuffle across the room to the kitchen, the tap turning on, and a glass filling up with water. By the time I get my sweatpants and tee-shirt on she’s already on the couch, flipping through the channels on the TV.
Still can’t sleep? I ask.
Nope, she says.
I stand behind her, leaning on the back of the cushions. There’s a commercial on about a stain remover. The man on the screen is demonstrating its ability to get out coffee, wine, and even blood stains.
You don’t have to stay up, Leslie says.
It’s OK, I say, and I run my fingers through her hair like a comb. Then I sit next to her on the couch, and she lies down and rests her head on my lap, and says: This is the pits.
I know, I say, and tell her that sleep will come the moment she stops trying to force it, and she asks me to tell her a story to help distract her, and so I think for a moment, and then I do.
A man rents a lakeside cabin for the winter after the death of his wife. They had stayed in the same place years and years before when their youngest graduated college and left the house. They had spent the whole summer there, just the two of them for the first time in forever, and the man fondly remembered it as the last time he felt close to his wife. Now, he finds the place different—the old cabins have been razed and new ones built up in their place—but still he tries to feel her there. He wakes with the sun and hikes the iced-over trails through the woods, returns back for lunch and eats it looking out the window at the frozen lake, and in the evening drinks scotch in front of the fireplace looking at old photographs and reading letters she’d written to him when they were kids.
A couple weeks in, a blizzard comes. It snows all day. Every so often, he goes outside and tries to shovel the drive and walkup clean, but gives up late in the afternoon and resigns himself to sit in the kitchen and watch it fall. It comes down so hard that he can hardly see the lake, just the swirling whiteness, and a feeling of profound loneliness spreads over him like a shadow. He retires to bed early, sleeping on the right side of the small bed, while outside the snow keeps right on going.
When he wakes the next morning, the storm is over. The world is there again when he looks out the window, and a bright yellow sun is shining over the lake and reflecting brilliantly off the fresh fallen snow.
The whole yard, from the long gravel drive leading to the highway to the arced treeline out back, is so even and glittering and perfect the man almost doesn’t want to disturb it with his footsteps. But he goes out to take a walk by the lake. On the side of the house, he stops. Alone like an island in the otherwise untouched snow are two perfect footprints, stamped into the fresh accumulation just under his bedroom window.
That’s a terrible bedtime story, Steph, Leslie says. But I like it.
Wish I could take credit, I say.
I get up from the couch, go to the kitchen, and put on a pot of tea.
When I was, I don’t know—ten or eleven? My grandpa took me and my brother up to this little cabin in the UP overlooking Lake Superior, and he tells us that he spent the winter there after my grandma died. We were kids, like what are you then, third grade? And he tells us that my grandma’s ghost or spirit or whatever you want to call it came to him there. And we’re like in third grade, so it freaks us the fuck out of course, but then he tells us, No. It’s not supposed to be scary.
I turn and look at Leslie. She’s sitting up now on the couch.
He tells us that he had tears in his eyes when he saw the footprints. He said he was grateful.
The apartment’s quiet then until the teapot starts to whistle.
Eric Lutz is a writer of fiction, journalism, and essays. His work has appeared in numerous magazines and literary journals, including Salon, Paste, and The Boiler, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He is an adjunct instructor at Elmhurst College near Chicago, where he lives.