She’d have preferred to not have even as much contact with others as the job required, but the alternatives were worse, and she couldn’t argue with the benefits:
A roof over her head.
A stipend for the necessaries.
Granted, there were days when she could feel the walls press close around her and the vistas felt airless. She’d scan the horizon, then, wondering when someone would stop by that she could talk to. Vulnerable in her need, her fingers would reach for the radio, yearning to hear a voice that was not her own, and she’d make some excuse about checking the weather or changing the date of the next airdrop.
And yet she could not wait to end the conversation – if that was what one could call the brief exchange with the dispatch to arrange a fly-by or a stop-drop of supplies – so the last of the vowels could evaporate into the quiet.
Human contact suffocated her.
Its lack bore holes into her soul.
It was untenable, and all she could do is try and find some semblance of balance between loneliness and overwhelm.
There were no roads to the respite cabin, only footpaths, or for those who braved the crosswind, a rocky field in which to try and land a chopper. The nearest town was a hard three-days trek through the mountains.
Once in a while she’d see a shepherd who’d misread a storm and sought shelter. Sometimes another ranger would stop in during an upkeep task, to resupply or send an update to headquarters. Those were hardy, silent persons like herself, who welcomed a warm bowl of soup, a place to dry their clothes, and a break from the wind, but needed little in the way of clucking.
The trekkers, for whom the respite cabin was intended, thankfully limited themselves to the brief season when the weather was most forgiving. Her outpost was stationed on what was a remote route even for the most intrepid hikers, and yet some evenings in midsummer the small cabin would be bursting at the seams with chatter and the smell of unwashed feet, damp shoes, and giddy overconfidence. The bunks slept eight. To have even three occupied felt to her like eighty.
The trekkers would all leave in early morning, bellies full of oats and faces flushed with sleep, and she would not know if their eagerness was for the day’s exertions or to get to where they could safely gossip about the agonies of trying to wrest a word out of the reticent resident ranger.
She’d grow skinless by the time fall brought with it a piercing cold and the relief of rarer human sightings.
It would be weeks into winter before her fingers reached for the radio, pining to hear another person’s word.
So she was not prepared for the knock that came, an hour into night in early winter.
There was no storm. No ranger’s late arrival. No shepherd.
Just a youth. Half-frozen and her belly swollen, and in her eyes a look that pleaded urgent need even as it warned to keep a distance.
It could have been herself.
Fifteen years back.