They purchased the mountain house in the summer of their 39th years. The husband worked part-time at the brewery in Golden while the wife commuted to Denver to serve as a corporate accountant. A sizable inheritance from the wife’s parents made it unnecessary to work, but neither knew what to do with themselves if they didn’t. They held no artistic ambitions or hobbies they cared to explore. They had no interest in children. Two dogs, one large and one small, ran around the property left to their own devices. There was no cable, so they had a satellite dish installed. When the weather was poor, the television snowed. Animals wandered through the yard. Black bear, elk, mountain goats. Birds flew up from below to reach the house, appearing from under the cliff face that formed their property’s edge. The wife enjoyed witnessing this phenomenon far more than the husband. It had long been rumored gray wolves would be reintroduced in Colorado. Both waited eagerly for that.
The house rested at over 10,000 feet with views of the Southern Rockies and Pikes Peak. To gaze off the porch at the endless expanse made the size of any problem shrink. For eight months each year they received snow. The husband spent much of his time clearing their steeply graded and winding, mile-long driveway for his wife’s commute. He used an ATV with a snowplow attached to the front, but parts of the driveway froze underneath the snow and he had to break the ice with a shovel or ice axe.
For nearly two decades things remained more or less the same. The brewery offered the husband a partial retirement, which he took. His focus turned to caring for the house and grounds. The wife was given a yearly raise. She was offered several promotions but accepted none. Once, after a trip to the doctor, the wife mentioned having a child. The husband strode to the porch and stood in the light snow staring at the peaks. It was too late. He didn’t want to be the old man with a teenage child. Practically two generations removed. She came out and stood silently beside him. Eventually, they rid themselves of the satellite dish and became cinephiles, ordering loads of Blu-Ray DVDs. The wife loved fairy tales and suspense. The husband westerns and tales of wilderness survival.
The dogs died and were replaced by two nearly identical dogs. The husband drove the first two into the woods in the back of the ATV and buried them in elaborate graves with tombstones made of rocks from the property. He cried standing over the fresh dirt mounds. The wife could not bear to witness. One year, as a result of historic legislation, gray wolves were reintroduced into Colorado.
On the eve of the husband’s 60th birthday he drove the ATV to the bottom of the driveway after lunch. The day was clear, but high clouds brush stroked across the sky signaling more snow. As he drove, a lightness fell upon him thinking about his 60 years of life on this lonely planet. He parked the ATV abruptly by an old familiar patch of ice and swung the axe. The ice cracked. He yanked, but the pick stuck, causing him to slip. He fell hard against the ATV then to the ground. The force and odd angle with which he fell caused the ATV to jostle and slide on an icy patch. He attempted to scoot away from the ATV’s path but could gain no momentum against the ice and thick snow. The back wheel rolled over his lower leg and ankle. In the afternoon’s feathery silence, he could hear the crunch. There was no one around to hear his screams. He laid there on his back, the snow a pillow and watched a jet trail inch across the blue. His wife would not return for hours. Like a flash from a movie, he saw his phone on the kitchen table. The bone was visible not only through his skin, but the leg of his pants which it had pierced.
A lifeless wind blew. The ATV again began to slide, picked up speed, crashed through the gate at the bottom of the driveway and tumbled across the road and into a snow-covered ditch on the other side. He considered giving up. Freezing to death or bleeding out. Whichever happened first. Then the sun’s glint on the ice axe caught his eye through the tears, and he reached for it, turned and slammed the axe into the Earth. It stuck and he pulled with all of his might. The pain was overwhelming, but he believed he could make it. Maybe their life hadn’t been a fairy tale, but the ending was not his wife finding him bled out, dead on the driveway at the end of a normal commute.
It was a slow crawl. He had to stop and rest every few minutes, but he was making progress. The first sound he heard was the low breathing and growling of a bear. Limbs rustling close by. He felt the hot breath of the beast but refused to look. The knowledge that bears aren’t hunters comforted him and soon its footsteps tapered off against the forest floor. Not long after, he came to rest and turned on his side. In the underbrush, an elk ate leisurely from a tree. He thought he heard tires on snow, but it was only the wind rustling the branches. The pain had subsided because of shock. The loss of blood and the cold chilled him to his core. He knew he was more than halfway home when he spotted the large boulder above the trees. He blinked in disbelief at a snow-white mountain goat standing atop it. In a moment the goat was gone, leaping away. Delirium was setting in. He was badly weakened. But still he fought. Swinging and pulling. Until finally the house rose into view and the edge of the cliff face beyond it. From below, a hawk appeared, soaring, its wings still. He closed his eyes to rest one final time and that’s when he heard the howl of the gray wolves.