© 2020 Richard Drebert. All Rights Reserved.
Starkey could barely see over the snow berms piled on either side of the highway. The forest, costumed in powdered sugar, stretched for uninhabited miles, and the old man pondered how that life had lost its sweetness.
Margie was gone.
He sipped bitter, cold coffee from a metal Thermos cup, careful to keep his pickup in the single lane cleared by a snow plow.
Dodging moose, sliding on black ice, and worry that his old International might break down on the way to Fairbanks crowded out his grief for a time. This was his second trip north in 17 years. The first had been the summer he met Margie.
At Fairbanks her blue eyes had stolen his heart and before he knew it, Margie sat beside him in his pickup and the two of them had driven back to his home in Anchorage together.
The truck slowed, laboring in deeper snow. Starkey hadn’t seen traffic in over an hour as he cogitated on his years with Margie—fishing trips, hiking, winter evenings curled up on the couch together. The old girl had stuck by him through thick and thin, unlike others in his life.
The pickup stabbed a white curtain of falling snow and Starkey flipped on windshield wipers. Snow was deepening on the Parks Highway. It was nearly bumper high.
He glanced in the rear-view mirror, reflecting about Margie who was roped tight in green canvas, lying in the pickup bed. She was stiff with cold by now.
He guessed it was time. Starkey had been driving in the center of the road, and he eased to the right, creasing the snow berm. No need to brake. The snow dragged him to a stop. With gloved fingers, Starkey turned each 4×4 wheel hub, then paused before climbing back into the warm cab.
He scanned both directions for headlights, taking comfort from the dependable burble of his entombed exhaust pipe. It was the only sound for miles. Somehow he knew Margie would have wanted it this way—to be buried in Fairbanks where she was born.
The old truck groaned from first to second, and made its home in third gear. Starkey maintained 30-miles-per-hour until reaching the hill at Little Coal Creek —where a glance behind him spoiled his yawn.
Starkey jammed a pack boot on his brake and slid to a sideways stop. He craned his neck at different angles to spot Margie’s shroud, but it was gone, and so was Margie. The pickup’s tailgate lolled open and not a flip or a flap of canvas appeared between his two white tire veins. Starkey turned the pickup about, peering hard into the gloom, and his heart lightened for an instant. Snow rooster-tailed from a plow truck a mile distant — a hint of mercy in his desolation — until panic struck.
He thought about Margie’s desecration and flung open his door, gritting his teeth. He waved wildly for the plow truck to stop, but it was no use. The iron leviathan left a shiny, white corridor behind it. The driver stopped a few feet from Starkey’s bumper and turned off his diesel engine.
“Got car trouble? I kin radio for help.”
“No, no. Just lost somethin’. Don’t suppose you… hit anything?”
“Yeppers. Hit sumpin’ ‘bout a mile back. Couldn’t see it. What was it ya’ lost?” The driver nodded toward Starkey’s open tail gate.
Starkey felt coffee rise in his throat. He took a deep breath and mumbled as he climbed behind the wheel of his pickup. “Somethin’ kinda’ special,” he said.
Sparks flew from the plow blade as the driver scraped pavement north toward Fairbanks again, and Starkey moved his pickup into the icy, cleared lane. He guessed at the distance the plow truck driver surmised about striking something, wishing that his odometer worked.
Poor Margie. Some memorial.
He glanced at the empty seat beside him and groused at Margie like she was leaning on his shoulder. “I come all this way, and this is what you do!?”
Often Starkey would grab Margie’s thick ruff, and look deep into those blue pools. He only scolded her if she was real bad—like if she chewed the corner of his easy chair—but she was half wolf, after all.
Starkey passed the green canvas balled up in the snow berm, and he scolded himself for nearly missing it. He shut off the pickup engine and sat for a moment gathering courage, then stepped outside.
This wasn’t the first time he had lost track of Margie. The wolf-dog was partial to licorice, and children in town sometimes coaxed her through the pickup’s open window, to romp with her. She always came back, tongue lolling in a satisfied grin.
Margie could be exasperating.
Metallic cooling noise in the belly of the truck peppered the stillness. The old man crumpled the empty canvas against his chest, and, to him, the world seemed colder than 20-below. Starkey probed and poked the berm with gloved hands until he couldn’t feel his fingers, then stopped, wheezing great visible gusts. His coveralls crackled as he stumbled against the tailgate. Starkey stared vacantly at a gleaming mountain slope, and shivered—but not from the cold.
Margie should have been chest deep in the snow, but she stood atop the ghostly powder. She barked twice, wagging her tail, then whirled, leaving no prints in her wake.
The wolf-dog bounded into the white mist and disappeared.
Starkey couldn’t decide what to do next. Numbly, he climbed into his truck, staring at the last place he had seen his companion, until his windows fogged up. He rolled down the icy glass in time to hear a mournful howl that sent chills upon chills upon chills playing on his scalp and down his spine.
It was Margie’s distinctive song.
Starkey drove south. He’d be lonely without Margie, but somehow he knew that he’d see his old friend again soon. Starkey’s headlights cut through the dismal white curtain again.
“See you then, ol’ girl,” he chuckled—relieved that he didn’t have to drive clear to Fairbanks after all.