Read The Winter Spirit ARE Online
Authors: Indra Vaughn
I followed him down the exact trail I’d have taken and wondered what this must be like for him, to walk the trails that had once belonged to his family, now all long dead. Apparently my great uncle had bought this house from the last Wickfield, who’d been an elderly man even then. I wanted to ask Gabriel if he knew of any other family still alive, but I didn’t have the breath for it. He kept up a pace so fast I began to sweat in all my winter gear.
Gabriel slowed a little as we took the trail leading down to the lake. “Are you okay?” I asked, catching up to walk beside him.
He smiled at me and his eyes twinkled. “Yes. I keep forgetting I’m not really supposed to be here. And then I remember and expect to be yanked back to the house, or to disappear, or something. But it’s not happening.”
I pulled him to a halt and tugged him closer, barely able to fit my arms around his chest with all the extra padding. We creaked and rasped together in our thick coats, and Gabriel’s nose felt icy when he pressed it to mine. I grinned at him like a fool, my heart light and full.
“I feel so alive,” he whispered. “No matter what happens after tomorrow, I… Thank you. Nathaniel, you’ve…” He shook his head. “It’s been an honor to know you.”
My bottom lip quivered but I valiantly said, “You’re welcome. I’m glad…I’m glad you’re happy. You’ve made me so happy too.”
I shut him up with a kiss and our lips stuck frostily together. “I know,” I said. “Me too. Come on, we’re almost there.” Holding his hand was ridiculous in our huge gloves, but I did it anyway.
When we were maybe ten yards from the turn that would reveal the house, Gabriel tugged on my hand and came to a halt. He pulled his scarf down so I could see his face. His nose was red and a little damp from the cold.
“This is where the horse fell,” he said. “This is where I died.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I just squeezed his hand through our gloves, and waited.
“It had been a rough couple of weeks for everyone. My family—my father specifically—told me that morning the best thing to do would be to get myself killed in action. To restore my honor and the honor of my family.” He swallowed hard. “I didn’t set out on the horse with the idea of dying, although I knew how stupid it was. I certainly didn’t feel it would be a great loss if I did. And that poor animal.”
“I’m so sorry,” I whispered. I wanted to curse his family, tell him it was unfair and not his fault and repeat everything I’d told him last night, but I had the feeling he didn’t want to hear it. So I tugged gently on his hand and led him on.
The lake was barely discernible underneath its layer of snow, but we found the spot from where the B&B looked like a gingerbread house covered in snow. From up close it was a pretty big place, but from this exact angle it was cottage-like and quaint. The Christmas lights danced lightly around the house, a gust of wind caused a little snow drift to come down, and like they’d been summoned by the moment, three deer appeared from the woods and skittishly aimed for the bird feeders by the side of the house.
“Oh my God,” I breathed. “Gabriel, look.”
He put his arm around my shoulders and nodded against my temple. We were far enough away that the deer couldn’t hear us, but we were silent anyway, as we moved to the side a little to see them better. Together we stood there, transfixed as we watched them feed. Eventually they moved on and I felt my shoulders relax. Smiling, I turned to Gabriel, who dipped his chin to kiss me. Before his lips met mine, an almighty crack echoed over the lake. We stared at each other, frozen.
“Gabriel,” I whispered. Afraid to even breathe, I slowly looked down. We’d moved onto the lake, which should be fine in these temperatures. “Just move with me. Carefully. Come this way and—”
The crack resounded again, Gabriel gave me a big shove that sent me sprawling into the snowbank on solid ground.
,” Gabriel said as I scrambled upright and reached for him, and then he disappeared into the black.
“Gabriel!” I screamed. The ice groaned and creaked, black water lapping at the sharp edges of the hole where he disappeared. “Oh God. Gabriel!” I scrambled to the edge of the lake, digging through snow with my arms as I lay on my front, until I felt the freezing water pull at my clothes. I pushed ice and snow out of the way, screaming his name, but there was nothing, not even bubbles rising to the surface.
I felt huge chunks of ice shift underneath me and a shiver of primal fear sent me crawling backwards.
My breath bellowed out of my lungs in huge white puffs. Part of me wanted to dive in after him, but that was suicide.
For an agonizing minute, I didn’t know what to do. I knew there was a very good chance Gabriel had just reappeared at the house and would be warming my bed tonight, but the look on his face right before he went under haunted me.
He hadn’t looked afraid. He’d pushed me out of the way, saved my life. He’d sacrificed himself for me. But not for a single second had he looked frightened and that scared me more than anything. A great big sob tore itself out of my mouth.
I grabbed my phone from inside my jacket, grateful it didn’t seem to have gotten too wet, and called the police.
“I’m sorry Nate, but we found no trace of anyone in the water.”
Archie, the local sheriff, gave me the stink eye. He was none too happy having dragged his men out to the lake on what he thought was a wild goose chase. Obviously I couldn’t tell him on the phone I’d actually been with someone who’d gone through the ice, so I’d made up a story of hiking through the snow, seeing someone go down, and going over there to check, then calling the police.
“It could’ve been a deer,” one of his men said. He looked like a pimply teenager, but I kept that thought to myself.
“Yeah,” I said miserably. “I’m sorry I called you out on Christmas day.”
“Yes, well.” Archie patted my shoulder awkwardly. We’d gone to school together, me a few years below him, and I knew he was a decent guy. “You did the right thing, Nate. You just make sure you warm up now. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas,” I murmured, shuffling to the door in my blanket to let them out again. Behind me Annie was making worried noises and I knew she was about to ply me with hot chocolate and a hundred questions.
“I’m going to take a quick shower,” I told her. “Then I’ll get breakfast started.”
“Don’t you worry about breakfast, dear. Saul and I can fend for ourselves for one morning.”
My eyes stung, and I turned away. “Thanks. Elisa should be here soon. She’ll help,” I croaked and dragged myself upstairs.
I let the blankets fall away in my bedroom, not caring where they dropped and went straight into the bathroom.
“Gabriel?” My voice quivering a little. There was nothing, just like there had been nothing from the moment I’d arrived at the house. I took a shaky breath. “It’s okay,” I whispered. “That must’ve been a nasty shock, ending up in that water. I bet you need a minute to get your bearings. I’ll be—” My breath hitched and I held back a sob. “I’ll be here whenever you’re ready.”
Frozen down to the marrow in my bones, I dragged my stiff and sore body into the shower and stood there, I didn’t know how long.
Eventually Elisa hauled me out of my room—after she made me get dressed—and into the kitchen to get Christmas dinner started. She managed to get the story out of me in stops and starts, but her sympathetic looks only grated on my nerves.
“He’ll be back,” I told her for the umpteenth time as I checked the turkey.
But he should be here now
, I thought. To taste all this good food and share one last Christmas with me, before he went away. We only had such a short time together. If I’d lost these last two days as well…
I slammed the oven shut harder than I meant to. “Sorry,” I told Elisa.
“You stay in the kitchen tonight,” she said. “Or you’ll scare the guests.”
I shrugged, since that suited me just fine. I didn’t want to see anyone, wish anyone a Merry Christmas as if everything was completely fine.
The dinner was a success, as far as I could tell. There were hardly enough leftovers for Elisa, the two waitresses, and myself, but because I wasn’t hungry, it didn’t matter.
“Leave the cleanup until tomorrow,” I told the girls. I’d done most of it while cooking anyway, so there wasn’t much left.
“We’ll take care of it, hon,” Elisa said. She followed me out of the kitchen. “I’ll pay the girls a little extra, if that’s okay.”
I shrugged and looked toward the stairs. Maybe he was up there, waiting for me. Elisa gave me a sad look.
“Night,” I told her.
She sighed, squeezed my arm and patted it. “Goodnight, Nate.” She worried her lip, then said, “Don’t you think that maybe it’s for the best? If he finally found peace? Something must’ve gone wrong last time he died, and maybe this time he’s where he was supposed to be.”
I wanted to scream at her, but was afraid the urge was selfish. She was right of course. But we were meant to have these last two days and they’d been cruelly taken from us. And drowning in an ice cold lake seemed like an unnecessary punishment on top of everything he’d been through.
She saw the look on my face and took pity on me. “I hope he’s up there for you.”
“Me too,” I whispered, but I knew…I knew.
He wasn’t there.
Annie and Saul left on the twenty-sixth to ring in the New Year with their children, and I bid them a sad goodbye. A little bewildered, they promised me to make use of the Lake House again, and I tried to muster some enthusiasm for them but I was pretty sure I failed. After some good advice on what to do if I was coming down with something because of my unfortunate brush with the icy lake, I saw them to the driveway and waved them off.
With a heaving sigh of relief, I closed the door and leaned my forehead against it.
Elisa wasn’t due back in until New Year’s Eve to help prepare for the party, since we had no bookings.
I always used this time of year to do repairs on the house if I could, rearrange whatever rooms I wanted to, and bask in the solitude.
But then, I’d never really been alone, had I? Even when I saw Gabriel as a slightly obnoxious presence in my life, he’d kept me company for years. All this time we’d been unlikely friends and I’d never realized it.
I wandered to the kitchen to clean up breakfast leftovers, and suddenly found the small task too much. My feet dragged me up to my room, and out of habit I went into the bathroom.
“Gabriel?” I asked, not expecting to hear or see anything. I wondered how long it would take me to give up. How often I’d be going about my business in the house for weeks, maybe months to come, expecting him to be there, teasing me. I missed him so much, beyond what I’d expect from someone I’d barely spent two days with.
Two days, but really, twelve years.
My heart ached.
All I wanted was to fall into bed and stay there for the foreseeable future, but with a weary sigh I trudged toward Annie and Saul’s bedrooms with my laundry cart. I had an unkind thought or two about them not sharing a room from the beginning, thus giving me twice the amount of work, and tried to tell myself their idea had been very sweet and romantic. It didn’t help much. I wasn’t in the mood for finding anyone else’s romantic gestures cute.
I cleaned their rooms and made them up to await the next guests, fixed a leaking tap in one of the other rooms, cleaned out the fridge and freezer, and tidied the pantry.
And I waited in front of my mirror. Every morning and every night, and ten times in between, I waited. When there still was no sign of Gabriel on the third day, I wrapped my arms around myself, bent double, and wept.
He was gone. And I’d have to find a way to accept it.
The New Year’s party was a very casual affair. It had started before my uncle had left me the B&B when the local banquet hall had burned down the day after Christmas, and the town needed an emergency venue to hold its annual festivity.
All I had to do was provide the space, and then for one day my house would be taken over by a bunch of men and women, making appetizers and stocking the place with champagne, rearranging my furniture to usually rearrange it all back the way I’d set it up to begin with. Then once the party had wound down, they cleaned it all up and left. And that was that.