Sometimes, Greta would take the bus to a friend's house after school, then walk over to Lou's restaurant after a couple hours. She would usually get a free meal or something before her dad or Molly would get off work and come pick her up. In the meantime, however, Greta got to hang out with Lou.
Today it was just him and her in the restaurant, and he was fixing her up half a Reuben sandwich. She swung her legs back and forth while she waited on the high top chair and peppered him with questions, as she often did.
She had already gone through a lot of her other questions in the previous times she'd been there ("What was Molly like when she was a kid? Have you ever been to another country? Who's the most famous customer you've ever had?). Now that it was early winter, her thoughts had turned to the weather.
"What's the coldest you've ever been, Lou?" Greta said, eyeing the flurries that were coming down outside.
"Pretty cold," he said as he stood wiping off the coffee machine with his back to the counter.
"C'mon, Lou. Details, please."
He put down the rag and quickly washed his hands.
"Hmm... well, I guess it was years ago now, during a police training exercise."
"Training for for what?"
"Thin ice, and what to do if you fell through. Most of the force was out there on the lake that day, freezing our patoots off -- and that was before we even went in the water."
"Wait, they made you go into the freezing water?"
"Oh yeah, hands on learning is the best kind of learning. Sometimes you just don't know how you're going to react to something until it happens. So the idea was that each man would glide out on skis until he fell right through the thin ice."
"On purpose?" Greta looked at him like he were crazy. With good reason, the dangers of thin ice had been instilled in her very early on.
"Oh, it was a safety exercise. I'm not sure if they teach it so much, anymore. But it was perfectly fine; you had a rope tied around your waist to pull you out if you couldn't make it, and if something went wrong, the whole squad was there to back you up. The years before had been easy. Each man - there were only men on Bemidji's police force back then - slid into the water then bobbed back up and tried to get out."
Lou smiled. "It was actually pretty funny to watch most of the time. Especially the greenhorns who didn't even have the first clue what they were doing. Anyways, one year I volunteered to go first. I was in a bit of a hurry, you see, Molly was home sick from school that day and I wanted to go home and check on her and relieve her mom so she could run some errands."
There was a ding announcing that the toast was done. Lou removed it from the machine and then started assembling the rest of the sandwich. "So I tied the rope around my middle and skied out. I was just wondering how much farther I had to go before there was the tiniest cracking sound and the world dropped out from underneath me." He paused. " You know, when you first drop into that freezing water, it's like a punch to the chest. It's so shocking that you lose a mouthful of air right away. You just can't help it. But I'd done it before, so I was expecting that."
He looked at her. "But what I wasn't expecting was to open my eyes underwater and see something looking back."
"What was it?" Greta said with wide eyes.
"A moose. A full grown moose partially frozen into the ice. It was so close, I could see its shaggy fur swaying in the underwater currents and the eyelashes ringing its dark eyes. Let me tell you I scrambled back onto the surface real quick. It looked so big in that black water."
"Why was it down there?" Greta sounded hushed.
"Who knows. Maybe it was sick. Maybe it fell through the ice just like me. But all the rest of the winter I just kept thinking about it. Something that big, just under the ice."
A passing car on the road honked loudly just then, interrupting the story. Lou looked out the window and Gretta stiffened, but didn't jump.
"Makes you wonder what else is just under the surface. Beneath all that white snow, lying undiscovered. " He took a contemplative sip of his water and swallowed it slowly before he set it back on the counter. "Lot's of thing are like that, I think. Not the least are people."
Lou put toothpicks through the sandwich and sliced it neatly at an angle. It looked delicious.
"There you go." He set the plate down in front of her. "Eat up."
And keeps sinking, long after he has died.
When he wakes up again, the freezing water is all around him, down his throat and pressing against his eyes. It is as quiet as quiet can be.
Lester knows he is dead, he knows he is alive, and he knows that he is himself. He waits for God or the devil or something to appear and recite a list of his sins, but nothing happens.
The water is even in his stomach, he knows it's cold but that doesn't matter to him.
The dull light from the surface filters down around him. It's twilight here, forever.
Lester lies on the bottom and waits for spring.